Sonja Kristina is a groundbreaking singer from England who is the lead vocalist for the early 70's progressive rock band Curved Air. After learning how sing and play acoustic guitar, Sonja started building up an impressive repertoire of folk songs. She would take her arsenal of songs to the local folk and poetry reading gatherings to test them out. Once she became comfortable with performing on the stage, she hired a manager. The dividends started paying off immediately as she would open shows for established folk singers such as Sandy Denny, Buffy Saint Marie, and occasionally appear on television. When her manager saw an advertisement to audition for a role in the play "Hair", he thought it would be a good opportunity for her. She auditioned, got the part, and had a very successful 2 year run with the production. After the show took its course, her management arranged for an audition with a very talented band. Once again Sonja passed, and Curved Air was born. A record company took interest right away, and they received nice backing to rehearse to start the band on its course. Through the bands career they would tour Europe many times and tour America twice. They opened for groups such as Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Jethro Tull, B.B. King and many others. They produced over 7 albums and had many members come and go. One member of note was Stewart Copeland, who would go on to The Police. Sonja was married to Stewart for 16 years. As with most bands, Curved air took a hiatus here and there, and when they did, Sonja did not sit idol. She led successful projects like Sonja Kristina's Escape and Acid Folk. I recently talked with Sonja in depth about her career.
R.V.B. - Hello Sonja... this is Rob calling across the pond from Long Island New York. How are you?
S.K. - I'm fine how are you?
R.V.B. - I'm doing pretty good. Congratulations on your career up to this point. You've had a great ride and you've been a trendsetter. What kind of arts were you exposed to as a child?
S.K. - I was first exposed to poetry speaking. They were the first performances that I did. I was quite small... about 7. In the recent years that followed, I did what they called predication lessons. We did poetry speaking and poetry speaking competitions. I really got involved with a poem and bringing it to life. I did really well with that. I used to enjoy the silence in the room. It was communication what the poem brought out in me.
R.V.B. - Did you have any favorite poems at that time?
S.K. - There was one that was called "We are Seven". It was by William Wordsworth and it said "No. We are seven said she." It was about a little girl who had six brothers and sisters... there were seven all together. "Prayer before Birth" by Louie Macneice is a beautiful poem. "I'm not yet born, oh hear me. I'm not the bloodsucking bat, or the rat, or the club footed ghoul."
R.V.B. - That sounds very nice. Did you have any apprehensions about being in front of a live audience?
S.K. - No. There again, it was the stillness... my nerves and the room. The sound of my voice in the room. When I was a little girl I used to jump off of high ledges of things and there was that feeling of adrenaline before you jumped. I got that same feeling before I started speaking and the feeling of relief and exhilaration afterwards... of having got through it without having crashed.
R.V.B. - Did you ever write an early poem yourself?
S.K. - I wrote a play called "The Silver Goblet"... before I was 11. It was like a children's TV drama and it was put on by my classmates. It was about a child finding a silver goblet... as far as I could remember. Writing kind of made me go into a trance. When I was doing creative writing in school, they would give you the first line and say "Carry on". I used to get a little gentle high when I came out of creative writing class.
S.K. - I was surrounded by popular music as I was growing up. Dusty Springfield made an impression on me. When she was with The Springfields, she made an impression on me and I followed her after that. I learned to play the guitar when I was taught by a nun in school. I went to a convent school. She went up to the Spanish guitar center every week. She was just learning herself. She had a little group of us that she was teaching us what she had learned. I had a Spanish guitar. I must have been around 11 or 12 then.
R.V.B. - I know the folk music scene in England was "skiffle".
S.K. - That was way before my time. There may still have been some skiffle groups around but I got involved with was performers like Buffy Saint Marie. She was my first real hero on the folk circuit. I liked what Bob Dylan was doing. All those words were just so dense and amazing. It was the same thing with Buffy Saint Marie. There weren't many people writing their own songs then. She wrote beautiful lyrics and had a very powerful delivery.
R.V.B. - Did you have a record store where you could get this music?
S.K. - You could borrow records from the library. I didn't buy that many albums. I listened to Odetta... she had a very deep voice. One of the songs I remember is "All My Trials will soon be over". It was a beautiful song. Buffy Saint Marie was the one that I preferred. The others were all very smooth like: Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and Julie Felix. They were very chanson, except they were singing the folk repertoire. They have a very clean delivery... whereas Buffy was more raw. Moving back to when I learned guitar, I learned just a little bit of guitar and then I started teaching myself songs. I bought myself a "181 American Folk Songs" book. They had chords, words, and an introduction on how to read the chord symbols. I knew enough about reading music to pick out the tunes, so I learned the tunes mostly from the book. That's really how I started. The folk thing was happening. I started going down to the local folk clubs to listen in and eventually perform at. After I learned songs from the book, I started learning songs from records... Buffy Saint Marie songs... Tom Paxton Songs... Incredible String Band songs... Bob Dylan songs... and writing a few of my own.
R.V.B. - Were there any English artists that you also liked?
S.K. - Later on. I got a manager when I was 15. I felt that I wanted to do this. I asked the manager of the folk club that I was playing at who the best manager was, and it was Roy Guest at Folk Directions. He was in London and I was in Essex. He used to manage Al Stewart and he used to put on Buffy Saint Marie shows in England. I went down and sung him some of my own songs, and he took me on. He got me a little bit of TV... on folk shows.
R.V.B. - Do you remember what songs you performed for him?
S.K. - I remember there was one called... I remember the chorus "Now the sun has risen and falls on the place where she motionless lies. Far away you can stand, and if you listen, you can hear her voice cry. Please boy leave me alone, I think that I love you but wait till I've grown". It was basically about a little girl being taken out into the woods and murdered. He was moved enough by it to take me on. My songs from back then haven't survived now. My management would like me to revive them but I think that they are very naive.
R.V.B. - Were you getting support by your parents?
S.K. - Yes. I used to practice for hours, learning the songs. When I started learning the guitar, I was learning a tune a day. My dad used to give me a penny for every tune that I learned. My mother used to like listening to me singing. They just let me get on with it... really. When I went out to the folk clubs, I went by myself. When I was around 18, I used to play in folk clubs in London and being a teenager. I would have died having my parents in there watching me. They would sit around the corner in a car with a thermos flask... waiting until I was done... so that I could relate to the artists and the audience by myself. One of the first shows I did for Roy was a little festival starring Julie Felix. I did several shows supporting Sandy Denny. She was my next favorite artist. At that time she had a really strong delivery and a beautiful voice. She brought the songs to life... like Buffy brings songs to life... in a way to me - that other people didn't. The other people were singing very beautify but one really didn't feel that they were speaking through their songs. Sandy Denny did. The original Sandy Denny album captures the Sandy Denny that I heard when I was watching her. I supported her 2 or 3 times. She was just a little girl with a guitar making a big sound... being quite strident but yet still very beautiful. That was something that I aspired to. Now I don't enjoy playing guitar and singing by myself. I need to be surrounded by people playing other little melodies and things. I feel my guitar work is not what I want to hear. I play very simple. My guitar playing hasn't evolved since my early days of learning clawhammer. I've learned enough to accompany myself.
R.V.B. - It's always good to surround yourself with good musicians.
S.K. - Yeah... I like being on the road with a bunch of mates. You can just relax and arrive at the show... set up... play... take it down again... and you're in company. A lot of times when I did a concert of my own... like on the Isle of Man... I went along and I played my set for the people there, and it went ok but I just felt very exposed as being me. I was aware that where there should have been instrumentals, there wasn't any. When I came off stage, people were coming up and talking to me but I didn't know anyone else there. I was on my own. I got back to the hotel room on my own, and that was before you had the internet and Facebook. It was just a bit of a downer.
R.V.B. - So you had a good basis with music and poetry. Did you realize before you got the gig for "Hair" that you had drama talent?
S.K. - When I was at school I was doing drama. You had a whole series for music and drama Grade1... Grade 2... Grade 3... and then silver medal... gold metal. I did all that. You had to do some sight reading... a modern piece... and then a piece from Shakespeare. It's a bit like doing an audition for a show. The only thing that I was in at school was "Merchant of Venice" when I played Shylock... which I loved. During the trial scene, he's really holding everybody in the court rooms attention. That was a moment that I really enjoyed. I looked very convincing. I made myself a beard and I had a little skull cap with false hair. I got good reviews as far as it goes. I had a melodrama as well with a local theatrical group but I was mostly doing the folk club thing. I used to sing at school and at the boys school. That's where I didn't mind standing up there by myself with my guitar. It was very much of the moment. It was the right sound for then.
R.V.B. - Did you know at that age you were going to go into show business? Did you have any other aspirations?
S.J. - No other aspirations. My dad use to say to me "You better have something to fall back on". I went to drama college and I left after a year because of my professional work and generally being a footloose young hippy in London. It was getting in the way of my studies at the time. It was a course that would have given me a degree in drama... with teachers qualifications. I left there and went into my managers office one day and he said "Oh look... there's a show here where they're looking for people like you." It was saying Hippies wanted... must be good movers... Equity members only. I happened to be an Equity member because my manager had joined me up to a Variety Artist Federation which had merged with Equity. We had about 8 re-calls for "Hair". I sang my songs. I took my friend who played electric keyboard. I was a lot braver then on my own.
R.V.B. - You had to audition multiple times?
S.K. - Yeah... we all did.
R.V.B. - Did you think you had a shot at it from the beginning? Were you confident?
S.K. - I put everything I could into it. Singing with the guitar to people is just what I did. It's what I had to offer. Lots of times when I would be singing at a restaurant to people or a squat party... that was what I did. The thing that makes you continue doing it is the response that people give you. People like it... they get moved and they're very appreciative of it.
R.V.B. - In this production, you had all of your fellow actors and friends. Were you happy with the role that you had? Would you have liked to have another role or it didn't really matter because everyone contributed?
S.K. - Everyone contributed. I had a very special role. It was the only time that anybody was actually alone on the stage... which was when I sang my song. It was very sweet to sing that song and it made an impression on people. It was pretty nerve-wracking as well. I was in the show for 2 1/2 years. Every time I came into work the adrenaline would kick in. I got pregnant before the show even opened. I remember saying to the director "I'm pregnant"... expecting him say that I couldn't be in the show. He said "Oh no... that's great". There already was a pregnant character in the show. He said "There can be two pregnant people". So I was lucky there. When I got bigger, they gave me a dressing room right next to the stage so I didn't have to go all the way up the stairs.
R.V.B. - How often were the performances?
S.K. - 8 shows a week! Every day and two matinees.
R.V.B. - Did you ever have a problem singing to much?
S,K, - No, because apart from my own song which was very much in my own range... the other parts I would be singing with a chorus. I knew enough to sing in certain keys. If I went above B flat, it hurt my voice... unless it was like a falsetto. I learned when singing with a group, to sing the notes an octave down. You're still singing the harmony but you're not straining your voice. When I learned to sing by myself in performance, I learned to transpose things into a key where my voice felt really comfortable and expressive for that particular song.
R.V.B. - Now you said that you were living the life of a hippy. That carried over into the "Hair" days. How did you enjoy living the life as a hippy? It was a very happening time period for music history in England.
S.K. - I was just really lucky. I knew everybody. I knew the kind of anarchic intellectual leaders of the kind of free music hippy movement like Mick Farren and Felix Dennis... the people who wrote for the International Times and OZ magazine. I made friends with the people of Hawkwind and The Pink Fairies. They all lived around Ladbroke Grove way. My friend from drama school, who was a couple of years older than me... she introduced him to me to them. I used to go down to the International Times offices. When I was in "Hair", Mick Farren had a flat above the theater where Hair was performed. I used to hang out there between performances. He was friends with the Hells Angels. A couple of the Hells Angels people followed me through my solo things after Curved Air. They were supporters of what I did. Lemme from Moterhead... all these people were all the kind of heavier end of Hippies... if you like. Being a hippy is not all peace and love... there is an edge to it.
R.V.B. - What American artists did you see come through Europe at that time?
S.K. - Tom Paxton. Roy Guest put on some shows with him. Buffy Saint Marie... of course. I saw Joan Baez... Peter, Paul and Mary. I saw Hedy West. She was a southern Appalachian singer. I saw her in my early days at the folk club. She was a beautiful lady with long black hair. She played banjo and sang.
R.V.B. - Did you get caught up in the Beatlemania craze?
S.K. - I went to see the Beatles when I was 15/16 in a big concert hall. There was just so much screaming that you couldn't really hear them. I was up in a high balcony so I couldn't really see them either but I was at a Beatles concert. I wasn't really into The Beatles until it got to The White Album... "Here Comes the Sun" and all that stuff.
S.K. - Oh yes. Brian Jones made an impression on me. I always used to go down to The Speakeasy Club when I was at college. I met Brian Jones there and Jimi Hendrix. Lots of artists used to go down to The Speakeasy Club. One of Curved Air's first shows was at the Speakeasy. I saw Judy Driscoll play there.
R.V.B. - Was that with Brian Auger's band... The Trinity?
S.K. - Yeah.
R.V.B. - Curved Air had progressive tendencies to it. Was that a change in your direction by putting the guitar down? Did you have a little more freedom to concentrate on singing?
S.K. - I auditioned for Curved Air when my manager had met the person who was managing the other 4. Their manager had decided that they needed a girl singer. I think he had seen me in "Hair"... or maybe Galt MacDermot... who wrote the music for "Hair"... recommended me. The other members were playing in a pit band in another musical that Galt had written. It was a show called "Who the Murderer Was". There was a connection there. On January 1st 1970, they rang me up and asked if I wanted to audition for this band. So I sang Melinda (More or Less). That was my contribution. I don't know if I'd heard their music before I went down there. They played some of their tunes, which didn't have any words at the time. What appealed to me was, the music was really beautiful. It was very somber and gothic, and it wasn't pop. It was a challenge to write words for those melodies and it was exciting. I could contribute in that way. I didn't play any guitar except for Melinda. I didn't get to record Melinda until the 3rd album.
R.V.B. - When you were excepted into the band... how long did you have to work with them before you took the show to the road?
S.K. - We worked very intensely. We did the usual thing that people did then, we went out to the country. The bass players family had a house in the country and we went out there and rehearsed in this barn. We just knew that it was exciting. It was really good. They were trained composers. Darryl and Francis had been to music college so everything was arranged. Yet they had been inspired by people like Hendrix and West Coast music... bands like Spirit. King Crimson was an inspiration into how they could experiment with music and crossover with classical and good rock music.
R.V.B. - It was the beginning of progressive music and they really didn't have a name for it yet.
S.K. - No they didn't. It was just different bands at that time. At that time when I was at college, there was a little record shop on my walk up to college. It was no bigger than a small living room. In that shop was all the best contemporary music of the world. I used to go in there and I used to buy albums to listen to like Tim Buckley, and Traffic, and the Rolling Stones - Satanic Majesties Request. That was around the time I got to know Brian. At that time, anything of any quality you could fit into a small shop. It was wonderful music that they recommended to me. I went back home and played it in my room in this hostel... where I was living. That was a good influence.
R.V.B. - Speaking of influence. The time period from the middle 60's through the 80's... and you could say it's still going on today... had recreational activities that went hand in hand with playing and listening to music. Sometimes it enhanced it and sometimes it hurt it. Did you feel that if you did recreational activities, it enhanced your music at the time?
S.K. - Well I just did it anyway. When I was still living at home I saw a program on television about people who had taken acid. They painted all these wonderful paintings. There was something about the way they talked about the experience. It was like a moth to the flame and I just wanted to fly there. When I was in London at college, one of my other kind of extra-curricular activities was, I was going down to the underground clubs and we used to take acid. We would go to Hampton's East and I got to know cannabis. It's what everybody did. In the hostel where I was living, there were 2 drama students. There were people from the drama club and there were people who were studying geography and things. They were very different. All my new friends went to the interesting universities and they were into music, film, and writing activist pieces. It was all happening... it was all part of the same thing. Obviously there were people who didn't like getting stoned... for whatever reason. For me, I certainly indulged and fortunately it didn't do me any damage. I did see casualties though.
R.V.B. - Rock and Roll had its share. When Curved Air set out on its journey, did you go out on tour with other artists or did you start out by yourself?
S.K. - To start off with, we played colleges and little clubs around England. When I joined Curved Air, their manager had already gotten a publishing deal so there was a little bit of money that paid our rent. We could focus on rehearsing and touring. We bought a big coach bus and we took out the seats in the back to make room for the equipment. We used to travel around in that. We would stay in communes, in Germany and Holland... or sleep in the coach. We played similar places there. Then we came back and recorded the album. It was really played in by then. The shows went down really well wherever we were. We were just on the bill... not top of the bill... at that point. It kind of built up, and built up. John Peel put us on his radio show, quite early in 1970 and that sparked a big interest in the band. Then we were playing the Roundhouse, which was the Mecca where everybody played. When I was a student, I saw Jefferson Airplane and The Doors play at the Roundhouse. We were playing there regularly there. We had some very interesting bills with people. John Peel would play our music and we did studio recordings just for the radio. It all kind of mushroomed by itself. The press liked us and used to report on how well things were going with the band. They wrote about our electric violin... about the synthesizer... about the great electric guitar... and that there was a girl singer. I was the spokesperson for the band because nobody really wanted to talk about anything but music. I did a lot of interviews - representing the band. We were all living together as well. We were shared a house right until the band broke up the first time in 1972.
R.V.B. - Did everybody get along?
S.K. - Yes. There wasn't any friction. It was easy for to have a base to set up shop to come and go back to. The boys had their girlfriends... different girlfriends at different times. We toured in America and supported Jethro Tull and Deep Purple. We toured with Black Sabbath in England.
S.K. - We would support different people on different dates. We supported Johnny and Edgar Winter. I really liked their music. Their music made more of an impression on me than the other rock bands. We supported B.B. King in New Orleans. That evening I really enjoyed... just watching somebody of that caliber, from that era.
R.V.B. - A real American blues legend. How long did that tour last?
S.K. - We did 2 tours of America. One in 1971 and one in 1972. But then the band, apart from me were all burnt out. They were tired and neurotic from touring and they split up. Darryl and Francis been growing apart musically. They were both composers and they stopped collaborating. They presided over their own works and they felt that they'd come to the end of the road as far as them working together. What I've learned over the years is that if you work with anybody who's really, really good... there comes a point when they want to go off and do their own thing. That can happen after 5 years... 3 years... 1 year. The next band had Eddie Jobson... who was just 17. A year later he' been courted by other bands and so he was off. When I was with Daryl and Francis, it was Daryl and Francis's thing. It was mine as well because I was bringing the melodies to life and writing most of the words, but as time went on Francis started writing more of his own lyrics... which I think are really good. Daryl wrote some lyrics for his things. I preferred singing my own lyrics. On some of Francis's songs... his lyrics for "Piece of Mind" and "Over and Above", I think were excellent.
S.K. - I think it was the whole thing about being a girl and the freedom that I had learned... the stage craft... if you would call it that. In "Hair", the stage craft that we learned was the masters which evolved from EST. That's when you go to an intense weekend workshop and learn to lose your inhibitions. You have to talk about everything and people goad you in various ways. With "Hair", we learned to trust the rest of the company... let go of ego and inhibitions and to fill the space with our energy... and to feel totally at home on the stage. When we weren't actually performing, we would just be milling around the stage relating with each other. Most of the rehearsal was spent doing these exercises, to make us more powerful performers... all of us. In the end, you end up with 26 or 27 really charismatic balls of energy. That's what made hair such a brilliant production. We had the same director and the same chirographer as the American show. James Rado and Gerry Ragni were around giving us their input as well... before the show opened. We knew this was a ground breaking moment as well. I've been very lucky in that I've been at the source of a lot of ground breaking moments in my life. The Hippy thing... the Ladbroke Grove sit-in free festival thing ... the folk boom... the punk thing, later on... and also the music of Daryl and Francis... keeping the flag flying. I was carrying on their work in a way by bringing in people who could add to the works of the precedence's that they set.
R.V.B. - When you took a break from Curved Air, what were your plans? Did you re-group and start a new project?
S.K. - After 76, when it finally broke down, the punk scene began. Stewart and I were going out, as punk was just starting off in the Roxy Club... which was walking distance from the squat where we were living. That was exciting. Then he started The Police. I started writing songs and thought I'll get a band together. Roy Thomas Baker, who produced Queen, refinanced my new project and he was going to record me but he was a very busy producer. He was producing The Cars at the time as well as Queen. We didn't actually get a deal at the time. The band was called Sonja Kristina's Escape. We toured around England and it went really, really well. We did a concert at The Music Machine and there was a lot of well known faces in the audience. The band went down really well and they were really strong players. My concert was kind of Curved Air crossed with punk. It had that punkish energy but it was just as musically proficient. Punk was very simple. What I did was, I left out any clever chords... everything was very simple chords... but the musicians could add whatever notes they liked. But in the structure of the songs, there wasn't a blue note in site.
R.V.B. - Did you have any issues with being a parent and a musician?
S,K, - Well my parents looked after my son whilst I went on the road. It all happened where one thing just kind of flowed into another. I gave birth to my son and I took about a month off and then I was back at the show. I was traveling back and forth to the theater for the last year or so of Hair.
R.V.B. - Was it a short trip for you? Did you live close by?
S.K. - It was a 20 mile drive. In England it's a long way but in America it's not that far. When I got into Curved Air, we got a place where we all live together so my son came out to visit me or I went out to see him. We weren't actually living together, my parents were taking care of him. Stewart (Copeland) met him when he was 6. When he was a teenager, he began giving my elderly parents teenage grief. He was a very quiet boy but quiet boys can be moody. Then he moved in with Stewart and me and went to boarding school near us and was very happy. He enjoyed that and went on the road with The Police. He did stage duties and laid out towels for them. The Police was really happening at that point.
R.V.B. - Did you also go out on the road with them?
S.K. - Yes. During the early years, I went to all the gigs when there was nobody there. They'd be playing the same set to a few punks in the club... with their arms folded... thinking "What is this?". Then they went off on a little low budget tour of America. The story that I'm told is that at one of those gigs where there was nobody there either... one of the people there was a DJ who picked up on Roxanne and started playing it on the radio. It then became a big hit! That was it... that's what broke the band.
R.V.B. - I remember the time period very well. They played at a place by me called "My Fathers Place". A friend of mine saw them there. I think it was 1980. Stewart was a very good drummer with a unique style.
S.K. - Yes. Stewart and I were together for 16 years. We would be together in little bed set studios where he'd be sitting with his Revox, tapping the beat of the song that was in his head... putting the beat down on a cushion. Then he would lay the guitar down. This is when he was writing stuff for Klark Kent. He recorded a lot of stuff himself. Then he covered himself in green paint and pink film and had this alter ego. It was great fun. That was before The Police became really successful. He had his hit with "I Don't Care". I was watching all of this and that was another magical place to be.
R.V.B. - You always seemed to be mixing it up somewhere.
S.K. - Yeah... it's just where the energy is. I like to be where the energy is. I just kind of happens around me. I'm not afraid to walk into it. When the energy wasn't happening for a while, I did various little jobs and things in between... when I needed to earn money. Sometimes the money from music wasn't coming in because the managers ran off with it. Then another phase of my music starts up again. I always think of it as... the bus comes along and I jump on it... sometimes you have to wait for the bus to come for a year or so.
R.V.B. - You have a lot to be proud of. What do you have going on these days?
S.K. - I did various things after Escape. I did some solo projects that I'm very proud of... my Acid Folk work. I toured for 7 years around England with this wonderful group of players... we played acoustically. 2 of them are now in Curved Air. I selected my Acid Folk lineup for the strength of their voices. It was the same basis that I selected the players in Escape... after Curved Air broke up. You want people who can improvise. They don't need to know the chord structure. They can listen as you describe what you want... in terms of atmosphere, mood or style and they get it. That's what I found with my Acid Folk band. Paul Sax and Robert Norton are now the keyboard player and violinist in Curved Air. They were playing with me between 1988 and 1996.
R.V.B. - You were also a vocal coach for a while?
S.K. - Yes, and I'm just about to revitalize that. I'm trying to find my way into the on line teaching thing, without becoming one of these people who turn up in your inbox all the time. I'm going to use the internet to teach singing on the strength of what I've done and of what I've learned. I don't want it to come across the same as everybody else.
R.V.B. - There's a lot of work involved to making something successful on the internet.
S.K. - I've looked at on line marketing and I thought "That's obviously the way to go because you can teach people anywhere in the world". I taught at the Middlesex University and that was a complete fluke as well. I went to see a friend of mine play in a club on Denmark Street and there had been a bomb scare so the whole street had been evacuated. I went off to a pub nearby with some people that I had met on the street. My friend walked in there. Later he came back to my place and the next morning I had been talking about teaching... I'd been studying voice one way or another... learning about voice and sound. He said "I teach at Middlesex University. They're looking for a rock and pop teacher because their rock and pop teacher just left". I went and talked to the head of the music department and got taken on. I had my own music room, with a steady stream of musical theater, pop, and jazz singers for 6 years. I think they ran out of funding for individual classes and everything went to groups. That was another lucky break. My life is full serendipity.
R.V.B. - That's fantastic. You're a go-getter and when you are go-getter... things happen. Things happen around you for a reason. Are you writing any songs these days?
S.K. - Curved Air just recorded a new album in 2014. The members of Curved Air have new members. Myself and the drummer are original members. We had Kirby who was in the band in 1973 with Eddie Jobson. We created new music all together. I wrote some melodies and the words. It was a lot of work and everybody collaborated. It wasn't each person directing their own songs. We sat down and worked out the parts together in my house. It which was called "North Star". It was on North Street in Clapham - in London. The album is called "North Star", because I just like the concept of the North Star. It's how people found their way in our hemisphere. It was the one star that didn't move.
S.K. - The Big Dipper points to it. It's symbolic and important... and it just all fit together. I'm very pleased with the North Star album. We did some covers as well because our record company had asked us to do so. It's a formula that had worked for them in the past. The album had a certain amount of new songs... 2 or 3 re-records... and 2 or 3 covers. We had to choose tracks and arrange them the same way we were arranging our own stuff to make a cohesive album and we succeeded. I think the album works very well. It doesn't sound like a disjointed collection of different approaches. We covered a Police song also... "Spirits in the Material World". We did a lovely version of "Chasing Cars" by Snow Patrol and "Across the Universe" by The Beatles.
R.V.B. - Great songs.
S.K. - At the moment I'm not writing. I'm thinking about teaching again. We just did 2 big festivals in England. In November we start touring again through February and March... into next year. It's getting towards the time where we probably will need a new album. Our management is busy putting together various official bootlegs of concerts from different years... all through our history... along with special archive recordings.
R.V.B. - Staying busy is always good... creativity is always good. You've received a few awards in your career, so people recognize your efforts.
S.K. - I received an award in 1971 for Top Female British Vocalist. Then I got an award in 2014 from Prog magazine called "Guiding Light". It's chosen by the editors and writers of Prog magazine. That was really nice. I got to go up and receive this reward and make a little speech, which is something I've never done before. I talked about my appreciation of my being surrounded by musical talent. A lot of people from the prog world was there. Prog magazine made this lovely banquet for everyone. Peter Gabriel shook my hand as I walked back down again.
R.V.B. - It's funny that you mentioned Peter Gabriel because I saw him and Sting perform together about a month ago...here on Long Island. I thought they were going to play separate but they were together in the same band.
S.K. - That must have been interesting.
R.V.B. - What is interesting is the fact that you've been recognized for your work and you're a pioneer to the point that... in the progressive rock genre, you had the early superstars like King Crimson, Yes, Genesis, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and you had Curved Air which is fronted by a female which is groundbreaking and historic in itself.
S.K. - Yeah. I think I had a lot to offer... given the backround that I had.
R.V.B. - You do have a lot to offer and now it's in the history books. You have to be proud of what you've accomplished. The music community sure is. You've been rewarded by it.
S.K. - Yeah, that was lovely to get one in the beginning of my career and one towards the end. I'm getting into my late 60's.
R.V.B. - Well it's now over. There's a lot more music inside that soul. I sense it.
S.K. - I'm sure. I saw Buffy Saint Marie play recently and she's over 70. She's still bouncing around in tight jeans and leather fringe jackets... and she looks great... with her gray stripes in her black hair.
R.V.B. - You still look great also. You still got it going on.
S.K. - Thank you.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
This interview may not be reproduced in any part or form without permission from this site.
Top photo credit Melissa North
Thanks to Billy James
For information or to advertise on this site contact musicguy247 (at) aol (dot) com.
Musicguy247 has over 2000 records, tapes, videos, books, about music on Amazon. Click here to view items Music media for sale
Phill Niblock is a very important contributor to the history of the Downtown New York music and art scene. After finishing college in the mid-west, and serving our country in the armed forces, he settled in New York City. His immediate goal was to find employment and enjoy the thriving jazz scene. He abandoned his desk job aspirations - with his Degree in Economics - and entered the creative world of Audio/Video. This led to him purchasing camera, and he began to explore the field of photography. Before long, he was photographing jazz greats such as Duke Ellington, Paul Desmond, David Brubeck, as well as other subjects. In the mid 60's, Phill started producing films at the Judson Dance Theater with Elaine Summers. It was around this time that he started his first works in music. He recorded various instruments and experiment in micro-tones and tape loops, and the result was an exciting new music that has become his signature sound. He also continued with his photography as he traveled the world compiling hours of movie footage of humans doing various mundane jobs as well as specialized work. He would eventually merge his music with this video and perform sound installations, which stimulates the listener and viewers senses. Phill intermingled with many other musicians and artists in the downtown area and eventually started producing concerts in his loft. The concerts are still happening today, and he has produced nearly 1000 since starting them around 1973. He gives the performers freedom to be creative in many different aspects and he has showcased a wide variety of innovative artistic talent. Through trial and era, and advances in technology, Phill's music began to expand. With long tones of closely related pitches, Phill's style began to flourish with rich textures and wonderful overtones. Today Phill performs in many of the world's finest venues and maintains a rigorous touring schedule. He had also taught at The College of Staten Island, The City University of New York until retirement. I recently talked with Phill about his career.
R.V.B. - How are you today? How's everything today on the other side of the pond?
P.N. - It's ok. I'm on the usual side of the pond for me.
R.V.B. - Do you live over there now?
P.N. - No... I tour 8 months a year... regularly. I'm usually on the road. I'm in Ghent Belgium for a week. I've just been in Italy, France, and a few other places. I was in the southern part of Italy.
R,V,B, - What is involved in the production of this tour? How many people are involved?
P.N. - Just me. There are some concerts where there are live musicians playing, but it's usually a onetime thing where they play. I also travel part of the time with my partner Katherine Liberovskaya, who does video, and we sometimes perform together, with a set of her live video improvisation, and me playing sound collage pieces, then a set of my film and music.
R.V.B. - Where did you grow up?
P.N. - Indiana.
R.V.B. - What was it like in Indiana as a kid?
P.N. - Horrible... but I escaped. I played a lot of basketball and rode a bicycle, and read.
P.N. - No... I was horrible. I didn't have any association with art at the time. I went to Indiana University and I received a degree in Economics. I went in as a pre-med student but then I decided I couldn't stand being around sick people. I had taken a lot of business courses so I switched to Economics. Right after school, I went in the Army for 2 years - a voluntary draft - and then went immediately to New York.
R.V.B. - Why did you decide to go to New York?
P.N. - I'm a jazz fan.
R.V.B. - What was your plan? Did you start taking pictures with your camera right away?
P.N. - The camera came a couple of years later... in 1960. I went there in 58. I figured New York was a place where I could get a job. I had gone to Europe on leave in 58 and I was interested in what would become the European Union. I met some people at the UN and I was interested in getting a job somewhere in the area... or the Belgian airline. I didn't manage to do that. I goofed around and finally got into the audio/visual business.
R.V.B. - Did you stumble into that field?
P.N. - Yeah, I need enough money to pay the rent. I moved from one company to another... where I was actually employed as a salaried employee, and we decided we needed a camera to document stuff. I bought it from the company I was leaving. I took still photographs for around 5 years.
R.V.B. - Did you go to the famous jazz clubs like the Blue Note to take some of your pictures.
P.N. - Very early, I got connected to the Duke Ellington Orchestra and I went to a lot of recording sessions. So I was taking more pictures at the sessions than I was in clubs. I shot some stuff in clubs in Harlem. I was usually the only white guy in a 10 block area. I was an amateur photographer.
R.V.B. - How did you get into the recording studio to take pictures?
P.H. - I met a guy at a meeting of the Duke Ellington Jazz Society and he invited me to come to Long Island... where he lived... to a Duke Ellington concert - in a theater. That was the first shooting/outing. The following week it was Paul Desmond and Dave Brubeck. Then I began to go to sessions. I went to a lot of Ellington sessions. Ellington did not go to a rehearsal hall... they very rarely rehearsed, as such. They went directly to a recording studio, where everything was recorded. They recorded a lot of material. All of the material that was recorded from the early 60's until Ellington died, went into a file, and that material wasn't issued until 1992... 30 years later.
R.V.B. - Wow! That's something that it took that long. He was definitely an American treasure for sure. Do you remember what town on Long Island it was on your first session?
P.N. - Plainview. I traveled a lot around Long Island when I had a car in the early 60's. The audio/video job that I had was trying to have a sales route on Long Island and in Westchester.
R.V.B. - I see that you taught on Staten Island for quite a while. Did you live there or commute there?
P.N. - I never lived there. The ferry was 11 minutes from my loft on Center St. and Grand St. and it was 3 minutes to my office on the other side, on a bicycle. It was a 25 minute boat ride.
R.V.B. - Tell me about your loft. A lot of things went on in that loft. It had a lot of historic moments.
P.N. - It's still happening. I've been in the same loft for 47 years.
R.V.B. - How did you come across this loft?
P.N. - I walked down the street... looked up... and there was a sign on the fire escape.
R.V.B. - Were you aware of all the arts and things going on in other lofts in the area?
P.N. - Of course. I had an apartment on 33rd St. and 2nd Avenue. In 1959 it was costing $43.33 a month, but after I moved to the loft. I had a lot of visitors come by. I felt that artists should produce other artists. I started to do a series of concerts of other artists in 1973... about 5 years after I moved into the loft. I had a sound system which was very unusual. For years I was very interested in jazz and also hi-fi systems. The series of concerts that started in 73 are still continuing today. I've done about 1,000 concerts in my loft.
R.V.B. - Besides Ellington, were there any other jazz guys that you enjoyed listening to?
P.N. - Yeah sure. In particular I liked Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins and that crowd. A lot of people where already dead at the time... including Lester Young who died in 59.
R.V.B. - The 60's was a very experimental time period. There were a lot of things going on. You had the folk revival in full swing... you had The Beatles... you had avant garde music thriving. When you got involved with music, why did your chose the avant garde side?
P.N. - I think the term avant garde doesn't have much meaning. I choose the "Downtown New York experimental music scene". I started doing films with Elaine Summers. She was a choreographer and film maker... in 1965. She was very involved with the Judson Dance Theater - with the Judson Memorial Church. I began to be very associated with those people. I primarily shot a lot of scenes with dancers. I hung around that scene for a while. That scene also included a lot of experimental music. I was seeing and hearing a lot of experimental music. I also didn't really like the idea of collaborating, so in 68, I was making my own inter-media piece at the Judson Church. That's when I started doing music.
R.V.B. - That went hand in hand with your stereo equipment and Hi-fidelity equipment?
P.N. - I'm still dealing with the same thing. I'm dealing with sound reproduction. My pieces are basically made to be played back through a sound system.
(a loud noise happened and I asked him if he was next to an airport)
P.N. - My door is open and my house in Ghent is on the harbor of a canal - which goes to the Atlantic ocean and the North Sea in 40 kilometers. It's a fairly big shipping canal. There are factories, and Toyota and Honda import lots nearby. It feeds into a lock which goes into the city canals of Ghent. There is a street with a fair amount of traffic over a bridge. It's a turn bridge... so it turns to let boats go through. There is also a tram stop directly in front of the house. So that sound you hear is a tram stopping. It's on a curved street and our house is actually curved.
R.V.B. - You have easy access to mass transit?
P.N. - I can be in London in about 3 hours by walking out of my front door to the tram.
R.V.B. - When you started your first compositions, I noticed the style of your music has a layering of tones... did you use acoustic instruments at first to create these works?
P.N. - I'm totally not a musician but the first composition was me playing the organ at Judson Memorial Church. That was the first piece that occurred. I was getting the microtones that I was interested in because the stops of the organ are not in tune to each other. If I pulled out some stops, those notes would compete against each other... by being simply out of tune. That was my micro-tonality at the time.
R.V.B. - You do use a lot of layers that produce overtones. Throughout your career of creating this music, was there a natural progression of the instruments that you added to your compositions.
P.N. - It wasn't the idea of the instruments being a natural progression - it was the technology. I began to work with audio tape recorders by dubbing things back and forth. Then I moved to multi-track recorders. The pieces were very analog in the first years. By about 1985, I was starting to do things with computers. By 98, I was doing stuff myself with Pro Tools. I began using a larger number of tracks. The very early 2000's had 24 tacks and by 2010 there were 32 tracks. There was certainly a learning experience but in the analog era, I made complete scores for the piece that I was going to make. I went to a studio and recorded material with artists... the instrumentalists... using pieces for a single instrument. We would record maybe 20 different tones and most of those were microtonally tuned. In the beginning, I would give the musicians a tuning note by headphones. In those days the tone was produced by a sine wave generator and tuned by a frequency counter, then I began to feed the calibrated sine tone into an oscilloscope. There are microphones in the oscilloscope, and the microphone from musicians. If the notes are in tune, the pattern would be stable. If they are flat it will rotate in one direction and if they are sharp it will rotate in the other direction. The musicians are constantly aware whether they are in tune by looking at the oscilloscope but they don't hear anything. It's also possible to be in tune and an octave off. This happened once with Peter Kotic... who was playing a note which was one octave higher than the note that he should have been playing. Nobody heard it because it was totally in tune. It wasn't until I started making the piece that I discovered one tone was an octave up.
R.V.B. - So you used a visual aspect of composing an audible sound?
P.N. - I just used it as a way of tuning. especially if they are playing microtones. 220 is a typical A. So I might want to record 224HZ. I can simply tune that tone into the calibrated sine wave going to the oscilloscope. Then he/she can see what they're playing. Instead of playing 220, he's playing 224. So I recorded all of this material and I listened to it... and because it's on analog tape... I'm editing tape with a razor blade. I take out the pause between one playing of the note and the next playing of the note. I may leave the trail offs and a 1/4 second of silence. just before you hear the breath... then coming back in just before the note starts again. Then, I have these series of notes that are maybe 2 minutes in length. let's say I have 220 HZ. That becomes a module of sound that I am going to use in the piece. After I edit it, I listen to all of that stuff. Then I go back and make a score on a piece of paper, with lines, and I write down the note that I want to use in track 1. I write down the time of that note on the line above and then I write another note at the end of the note which is the cumulative times. So there's 2 minutes and 30 seconds of the first note... the 2nd note might be 2 minutes and 36 seconds. I'll have an 8 channel completed score, I dub the analog, mono tape tracks to the multi-track 8 channel recorder l and that's the process of making the piece. I don't hear any of the material that I've recorded until the piece is actually completed on the 8 channel tape. I play back the piece... completely done... without having heard anything. I did make many, many pieces that way... maybe 25.
R.V.B. - When you create music today, do you still use the same basic approach? Where you may not know what it sounds like until the end?
P.N. - It's a little different because I can listen to virtual tracks. It's essentially the same thing because I'm simply drawing the clip or the region that's in the file into the track. Similar to writing it down in the analog score. Then I can do 24 tracks. I can do the first 3 minutes of sound on 24 tracks and it's very easy to listen to. I know what's happening all of the time. On the original analog pieces, it was very seldom that I went back and revised a piece. It did happen a few times, if I thought I could make a better ending or it could be longer.
R.V.B. - I'm sure Pro Tools was a welcome editing tool for you. It made things a lot easier.
P.N. - It also sounded very good. It's better than analog tape of course. There was less noise. I could do many, many, more tracks. Most of my recent pieces are 32 tracks, in the last 10 years. So they are very, very thick, in comparison to the 8 track analog pieces.
R.V.B. - You use your films in your performances simultaneously with the music. When you made the films of people doing mundane tasks, you did a lot of traveling. How did you go about asking these people to film them working? Were the people comfortable with that?
P.N. - I traveled with a person who theoretically spoke the language. If I were in China, I would be traveling with someone who spoke central Chinese - who might speak one dialect. There are something like 400 different dialects in China. If the people understood central Chinese that was great. If they didn't, it was still a foreign language to them. When I walked up and saw something happening, I simply took my camera out and set it up... which took a few minutes... and started to shoot. During that time, they saw me working. Sometimes there were many people and sometimes only a few people. Very seldom was there just one person. It was really not possible to ask these people if I could film them. It looked like I was working, and it somehow disarmed them enough that they seldom looked at me inquiringly. Everything went well... I did it for 20 years. I was just reading the International New York Times... which I haven't seen for a month and a half. The only access that I have to news is reading the International New York Times when I'm going through an airport. I don't watch anything on TV or any English newscast on the computer... I don't know what's happening. I was reading this article about a man whose wife had drowned in the tsunami of 2011. It was in the area where I had filmed in Japan in 1989. The whole area had been wiped out by the tsunami and the people that I had filmed are now probably gone.
R.V.B. - Do you still shoot films?
P.N. - In the last three years I have been shooting a lot of new, rather short video pieces which don't have any particular subject matter. Before the people working, I was shooting stuff that was in these inter-media pieces - that I was doing in New York. There was 4 separate pieces from 1968 to 73. In those were the first music pieces. I think my music really began to be interesting in 1974. These intermedia pieces used three 16mm films. Each screen is 12' wide, so there is 36 feet of image area. I had done these pieces many times at different installations. I'm probably going to do most of these pieces at The Tate Modern in March of 2017. But the music will be very recent pieces, not the ones during that period (1868 - 73). I've got a lot of the material together and I am going to meet with the curator in a couple of weeks in London.
R.V.B. -When you complete a composition... how do you go about naming it?
P.N. - Sometimes it's difficult. Usually it has to do with some sort of a pun. Sometimes I use anagrams. There was a piece from a few years ago called "FeedCorn Ear". It was a piece for the cellist Arne Deforce. "FeedCorn Ear" is an anagram of Arne Deforce. On another piece for Conrad Harris and Pauline Kim... the anagram is "Unipolar Dance". A recent piece I did for a bassoon player (Dafne Vicent-Sandoval), the best anagram I could find was "Praised Fan".
P.N. - If you go to the website Experimentalintermedia.org, there's one file that shows the people who performed from 1973 through 2007 - and then all of the years since then there are separate files. These are complete files with the description of the pieces. That series is also called "Concerts by Composers". It's never a concert by an ensemble playing a number of different composers, it's always one composer or sometimes a collaboration of two. I produced something like 1,000 concerts since 1973 in my loft.
R.V.B. - John Cage visited your loft a few times?
P.N. - Sure... he was a great mentor for me, so that was fantastic.
R.V.B. - Did he give you any advice on any of your pieces?
P.N. - No... not at all. If I called John and asked him to write a letter to a venue or grantor that I was applying to, he would do it. I never saw any of those letters so I don't know what he said. I had a Guggenheim in 1978, which I'm almost sure was directly from his letter.
R.V.B. - Of the downtown composers, were there any of them that particularly sparked your interest. Did you enjoy any of their compositions?
P.N. - I don't really like to answer that kind of question. I'm too much of a socialist. It means choosing people to be greater than others. There's so many different composers, and some of the music I simply didn't like - or I found great value in. The principle thing was that it was great to give people an opportunity to play what they wanted to play. Once I've chosen a person, there was no restriction on what they had chose to play. I try to make it so that it's as most free as can be. If they propose a program to me, and then wanted to do another program as the date approached, it was generally ok. A lot of different institutions won't let you do that. You have to do exactly what you say you're going to do.
R.V.B. - When you did put on an event like this, did you advertise it? Approximately how many people would come to these events?
P.N. - It varied incredibly by who the artist was. I did advertise initially with a postcard and a mailing list that was a few hundred people. It eventually became between 1 and 2 thousand people. This was of course long before the internet. In those early days, if somehow we used all of the cards... they disappeared and they weren't in a stack in my loft... we didn't know who had played. We had lapses in our list of composers because we had simply lost our cards. Then by the end of the 70's, that was not certainly true. The 1st computer that I used was an Apple II in 1983. So I had a pretty clear record of who played.
R.V.B. - I gather there was no code violations to worry about, like they would have today with everyone getting their cut... with cabaret licenses and such?
P.N. - We didn't have a license but the fire department... in a space like mine which is not codified in any way and probably doesn't have all the proper exits and things like that... they usually limit to 75 people in the audience. A few years ago my landlord... who would like to get me out because I'm paying an unusually low rent to him... sued me. One of the things he brought up was this law from the fire department that I can't have more than 75 people at a time in the space. Now we're actually limited to 75 people in the loft, including the performers. We would normally get anywhere from one person per concert to 50-75-100. There was a series of times where I produced a concert of my own work from 1976 until now, which occurred on December 21st every year for the winter solstice... the shortest day - the longest night... and originally it was 8 hours long. It became 6 hours about 20 years ago. That concert would get somewhere between 2 to 300 people wondering in. There were never that many in the loft at one time, but in the course of the evening, the place would be really packed. That was actually the concert that the landlord chose to sue me on... because it was much too many people. Now we have to do that concert at Roulette (Another producing space in New York). So for the last 4 years, we've had it there. Jim Staley, who started to do concerts in 78 in his loft... I started in 73... was he was the young man on the block. Now he has this big space in Brooklyn which is really great. It's a very fine space with a fine sound system.
R.V.B. - You'll be doing the solstice concert again this year?
P.N. - Yes.
P.N. - Experimental Intermedia was started by Elaine Summers, whom I began to film with in 1965. In 1968, she was aware that this government funding was coming... where one needed a non-profit organization to apply for the funds. So she made the foundation. It was originally called "Elaine Summers Experimental Intermedia Foundation". She chose a number of artists to be members and they could apply for funding through the foundation. Phil Corner was one of those... Tricia Brown, Marilyn Woods, Carman Moore, and I. When I began to produce the concerts in 73, I wanted to get some funding so I could pay people for the concerts... if possible. We began to apply to the New York State Council on the Arts or the NEA, for funding for that, through the foundation. I became the second member that was using the foundation for funding. Elaine Summers was great. She decided to leave New York in 85/86 and move to Florida. She sold her loft at 537 Broadway. Then by the late 1990's she decided to move back to New York. She actually stayed in my loft at the time when I was beginning to tour 8 months a year. So she was actually living in my loft at 24 Center St. for a number of years. Then she bought a place on 28th St. Eventually she moved to the Emily Harvey Foundation loft - when Emily Harvey died. She died a year or so ago.
R.V.B. - How do you find people for your concerts?
P.N. - I showcase people who I meet in the course of life. I'm doing typically 50 events a year in the world somewhere. Most of them are in Europe but some of them are in the States. I meet a lot of people in these productions. If a person is interested to come to New York to do a concert, they come to me, and I say ok. Other people I choose very directly. In the upcoming concert, there's a composer who was teaching in Brooklyn but he had to move back to Israel. So he's coming from Tel Aviv, and he's performing in relation to another composer who is coming from Boston, that I perform with a lot myself. It's Amnon Wolman and Neil Leonard.
R.V.B. - Is there any particular venue that you look for that helps in the production of your concerts? What is the best environment for your concert?
P.N. - For me, it's churches. I just did a concert in a cathedral in Sarlat, in the Dordogne - in France. It was supposed to be shared with Charlemagne Palestine... who I think is coming to a party here in Gent Belgium. He lives in Brussels. He got sick with an arthritic problem so he couldn't play. He had an operation and couldn't come and someone that I know in Vienna came to play his section of the concert... in the cathedral, on organ. (Thomas Lehn) I have a piece for organ which he played live along with the recording. It was produced by Thomas Maury, who is making a documentary on me, and it is his home town. We had a really great sound system and it was a very nice concert. I do things in fairly large churches once or twice a year. Otherwise big black box spaces are very good. It depends a great deal on the sound system because the work is extremely sound orientated. In New York, I have a sound system that has 8 large speaker systems with 15" woofers with horn tweeters, and mid-range... and 2 - 18" sub woofers in the space. The space is surrounded by these big speakers. My music has to be played quite loud to make a really great sound. It's very much a surround sound. I think the system in my loft still one of the best sounding systems I've ever used. Things haven't changed that much over the years, in terms of speakers. One of the speaker systems that I have in the space, I made in 1953. This sound tech guy that I have for 15 years said that it still sounds the best!
R.V.B. - What are you proud of about your accomplishments in your career?
P.N. - It's impossible to answer that question. I've made a lot of music... I've made a lot of film. The last three years have been a high point of my career. I've made more pieces in the last 3 years than I've ever made in my life in a similar period. In one year I made 14 new pieces... from my birthdays - October 2nd 2013 to October 2nd 2014. I was also making new video pieces. So there is 100 minutes of new video from 2013.
P.N. - Normally I make pieces with musicians who are interested in playing my music. There are 2 kinds of pieces, the pieces with single instruments - where I record someone and use that material to complete the piece - and there are pieces for orchestra and ensembles which are fully scored. The orchestra - or the ensemble - gets the score and they simply play to the score. Those pieces are normally about 30 parts, for instance. The parts are not for particular instruments, but are about the tuning differences of the piece. Normally, it's an acoustic orchestra. One piece was played in Ostrava in the Czech Republic with 110 musicians playing at the same time. They play acoustically live. If it's a smaller group of people, there would have to be pre-recorded parts so that it could be built up to 30 parts. Then they would play live in the space with those pre-recorded parts.
R.V.B. - Your current plans are to continue touring approximately 8 months per year and create more pieces in between?
P.N. - Yes. I'm in Ghent right now. I'll do my tour in Italy, and then I come back alone... so I'm here for 2 weeks. I have at least 3 pieces of music to try to complete. I also have a lot of video to edit so I'll be here working for a while. Then I go back to New York for 2 weeks.
R.V.B. - I thank you very much for taking this time with me.
P.N. - No problem, thanks for calling.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
This interview may not be reproduced in any part or form without permission from this site.
For information or to make a donation to this site contact musicguy247 (at) aol (dot) com
New England based "Neon Alley" is set to release a debut self titled album and it's sure to light up the airwaves. Guitarist David Vaccaro explains how the songs came together " They are written and recorded in such a way that they were not over produced, and that's why they sound more raw and alive". The band was influenced by the classic rock era and they are carrying the torch with a refreshing new approach, yet still keeping the classic feel. Neon Alley has been packing clubs and halls in the New England and felt the time was right to make a product they can be proud of. The 8 song CD is full of energy with some surprises that will make you want to listen to it over and over. I recently asked David Vaccaro about the history of the band.
R.V.B. - Congratulations on your new debut CD release "Neon Alley". It's a refreshing modern look back to the Classic Rock Era. Was this collection of songs born from your love of the genre?
D.V. - Thank you Rob for calling it refreshing and modern. Especially modern. Like so many other people I do love that era of music, but I don't wanted to sound dated. I try to bring in what modern influences I can, either through production or guitar tones, but I try to do it in a way that I feel is real to me.
Because I grew up basically learning to play guitar and songwrite from those "Classic Rock" era bands, so it would be only natural that I just write that way. My record collection is made up of albums from Tom Petty, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Boston, Aerosmith, Heart, The Who, ELO, Supertramp, AC/DC, Steve Miller Band. They're all pretty much imprinted in my head. (lol)
On the other hand I also have CDs from Green Day, Foo Fighters, Maroon 5, Mumford & Sons, and my two sons are always firing new bands and songs at me to listen to as well. It's always good to stay in the loop.
D.V. - No not really. They aren't really written from that, but they are written and recorded in such a way that they were not over produced, and that's why they sound more raw and alive. That's one thing I was very aware of when we recorded these. Some of the records that come out these days just seem so over produced and perfectly perfect that they just sound sterilized. After a few listens, there's nothing new to hear.
R.V.B. - What were some of your early influences when you were learning how to rock in the early days?
D.V. - My two biggest influences were Jimmy Page and Joe Perry. Also, Keith Richards, and Pete Townsend. I think one of my early bands could play almost the entire Get Yer Ya, Ya's Out album. (lol)
But before those guys I started learning to play listening to the Ventures. My brother had a guitar, a Silvertone, and a little amplifier, and I just picked it up and starting picking out notes and trying to play the songs. Songs like, "Ghost Riders in the Sky", "Pipeline" and "Walk Don't Run".
R.V.B. - On track 4 "I only want to be with you" and track 5 "Let your Lovin Come Down" I hear a nicely written and produced songs that are reminiscent of the something that George Martin would have produced. Did you have this in mind when adding the accordion and slide work?
D.V. - Thank you, that just made my day!! I didn't have that in mind specifically but I believe that during that time-frame I had been given a remaster or deluxe edition or something of the "Band On The Run" CD for Christmas. I had been listening to that. It must have rubbed off on me, lol! That was for Only Want To Be With You.
Let Your Loving Come Down came to me as a chorus while I was driving. I heard the line in my head and when I got home I turned on the recorder and just did a scratch vocal so I wouldn't forget it. I've got a bunch of those on my phone machine I need to backup now that I'm thinking about it.
R.V.B. - What kind of gear does the band use for live performances? Did you use the same stuff in the recording studio?
D.V. - We're pretty basic. I use a Marshall JVM210 with a 4x12 slant cab. I run an Eventide effects unit that goes through the effects loop for some chorus and delay when I want it, and I also use a Dulop wha-wha pedal. All done. Although it was not my personal amp being used on the recording, the studio we recorded at (Zippah, in Boston) had the exact same model head and cab as mine, so it's the same.
For guitars I used a few Strats for all the recording. My newer one (2012?) has a humbucker that my guitar tech had just put in (I don't know what kind of pickup it is other than it's a DiMmarzio) and the other guitar was a 72 Strat that was my first real guitar. It's a single coil and it's all original except for the center pickup which died sometime in the 90's and had to be replaced.
My Bass player (Mike McDonald) uses an Acoustic 600 watt head and, depending where we're playing, may use either a V4-B cab with 6, 10 inch speakers, or he may use this little Fender speaker with a 15". It's a new model and he just got it a few months ago and I have to say, it sounds awesome. The speaker is good for 1000 watts and it's really small and compact but it's pretty amazing how it sounds and what it will handle.
The drummer that plays on the CD is Scott Marion and he was using a Gretsch 57 set. They sound great and they have this 57 Chevy vibe about them so they look pretty cool too. Of course having them look cool in rock in roll is always better. (lol)
Scotty is no longer working with us since recording the CD. Our current drummer is Mike Bangrazi and I believe he uses a set of Slingerlands.
R.V.B. - You had an interesting take on "Jailhouse Rock" with alt chorus formats. I enjoyed the refreshing new look on it. Was this just a classic that you guys like to perform?
D.V. - Jailhouse seems to be a favorite off the CD. It's funny how it came about. I came up with the guitar chord riff in my head (again while driving) and I started working it into a song. It was going to be an original song, not a cover. For whatever reason I started using the lyrics and melody for Jailhouse Rock as a placeholder. Okay, verse here, pre-chorus here, etc. I arranged the whole "new" song like that. Then, when I had the arrangement down and it was time to write new words and melody, I started thinking; Should I write new words? Do I want to go through all that? I mean, I'd already written the song and it was working with the Jailhouse lyrics, and it sounded pretty cool too, why not just do the cover. So that's it. Taking the path of least resistance. I did a demo on my home studio and then brought it to the band.
D.V. - There's been a few that have been pretty cool. The night before Thanksgiving is always great. The clubs always get packed and people are ready to have a good time. Another fun gig was at a place called Michael's Cigar Bar. We play there often and one time we opened up for an L.A. band called Mycah. It was a small gig but the Mycah band was very cool and fun to hang out with.
R.V.B. - Can you give me a brief bio on the band members and what they bring to the power trio?
D.V. - Mike McDonald, the Bass Player is a Berklee Alumni and played in bands in High School just like I did. I first met Mike when he answered an ad I had out for a Bass player in a band that ended up being called Capital Gain.
Scott Marion is from Detroit and played in bands there before moving to Massachusetts. He was in the band for a couple years and recorded the tracks with us however he moved too far away and it made it difficult for him to get to practice and to gigs. We replaced Scott with Mike Bangrazi, a drummer out of Central Massachusetts. Mike teaches drums and has a steady stream of students. As you probably know well, it is very hard to find musician's who are not only into the same music, but play how you'd like them to play and have the chemistry for the band. It's more than just technical ability that makes for the right person.
D.V. - You got that right. It's like Boston's track Smokin from their 1st album. Sometimes you just need to turn it up and rock out. It was also a good excuse to play my best Jimmy Page riffs...as best I can.
R.V.B. - What are your plans on supporting the album?
D.V. - We are trying to get as much exposure as we can here in the U.S. and abroad. Joining forces with Glass Onyon PR has been a tremendous help.
We have also teamed up with director Vladimir Minuty and have completed two videos. One is for the opening track That's How It Is, which has a bit of a sci-fi virtual reality thing going on. And the other is for the semi-ballad I Only Want To Be With You. That one is a light-hearted love story in today's cell phone world.
The goal for the CD is to get it out there in front of as many people as possible and turn them into Neon Alley fans. I've got more tracks just waiting in the wings for another CD and the more fans we can get to support the band through CD downloads and purchases the sooner I can get a new CD out to everybody.
R.V.B. - Thanks for taking the time to answer the questions.
Thank you very much for the interview and for compliments on the songs. It's great to be at this point that other people are hearing the CD, rather than just me, the band and my family at home.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
This interview may not be reproduced in any part or form without permission from this site.
For more information on Neon Alley visit their Facebook page www.facebook.com/NeonAlley/
For more information or to make a donation to help maintain this site contact musicguy247 (at) aol (dot) com
Musicguy247 has thousands of rare music items on Amazon... records, tapes, videos, books, CD's and more. Click here to view items
Middlesong to release an EP of quality prog music ahead of full album. Guitarist/vocalist Joe Schneider and keyboardist/guitarist Phil Tomczak have teamed up with legendary Yes member Billy Sherwood to produce a fine collection of well written songs. The EP features something for everyone, with a mixture of influences such as: Prog, Classic Rock, Folk, Americana and more. The title of the EP is called "Directions" which Phil explains "has to do with the paths that one can take in life and just living in general". The EP keeps your interest with songs that flow out of your speakers like a picturesque New York State waterfall. You'll want to visit it over and over. I recently asked Phil and Joe about the process of creating "Directions".
R.V.B. - Congratulations on your new EP release. What is the story behind the name of the group Middlesong and the name of the EP "Directions"?
A: The name is very simple – we gathered every Wednesday to write our songs – the middle of the week – middle-song. The name of the EP "Directions" comes from the song that we feel offers our strongest collaborative songwriting, "Directions in D Minor". Directions also seemed fitting as a title, because many of our song themes (more to come on our up and coming Album) have to do with the paths that one can take in life and just living in general.
A: We did very little in the way of planning, and really just let the songs evolve naturally. In fact, maybe that was our plan! We’ve both had various types of music influence us over the years, and we were happy to let them emerge as the songs unfolded.
R.V.B. - Speaking of influences... what kind of music were you guys brought up on?
A: Joe – I listened to a lot of The Beatles, Bad Company and the Doors, 70's gold-one-hit wonders, Southern Rock like Skynyrd and 38 Special, Tom Petty, Billy Joel and the Eagles. I was also a big fan of Prog rock bands Rush, Kansas, Genesis and Yes
A: Phil -- I started out as a child taking piano lessons, which grew into a love of classical music. The real kicker for me was hearing Rick Wakeman’s ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ on the radio in the 70s, it let me know the great potential for keyboards and rock music as a whole. Wakeman, Keith Emerson, and on the guitar side, Jim Croce and Steve Howe, are my biggest inspirations. And the Beatles, always.
A: We were very fortunate and thrilled to have Billy Sherwood, current bass player for the band YES and a well-respected producer, step in and produce our songs. He also added his own special touch by sitting in on bass and drums for us. Billy’s influence took our songs into a new direction, which we both love.
R.V.B. - Track 2 "Rain to Sun" has very lush vocals. How many sing on this? What's behind this title?
A: Joe sings all of the vocal parts on Rain to Sun. In addition to the main vocal, he sings a lower and a higher harmony – each of these harmonies was performed again to provide a doubling effect. It's a song about the ups and downs that occur in everyone's life. Whatever struggles you may face, try to be positive and look for the rain to end and the sun to rise. Bad things happen to good people – the rain does not choose where it falls – it falls equally on everything
A: The EP “Directions” was born at Middlesong Studios. We’re filling out our live band right now, and can’t wait to get these songs in people’s ears from onstage!
R.V.B. - In the D minor song... Were you guys going for a "sadder" type feel for it?
A: We did not plan it that way – we started with the opening notes of the main musical theme (G-A-D) on our acoustic guitars and the D minor chord fit quite naturally with that theme. We began building the remainder of the song around that theme and chord progressions within the key of D minor. We call it Directions in Dm, because we do take the song in a few different musical, progressive directions and key changes
A: Yes we’re working on a bunch of new songs as we speak to round out the album. More surprises are in store there for sure. “See This Through”, “Rain to Sun” and “Directions in D Minor (Make Sure That You Learn)” were so strong however, that we felt compelled to release them as an EP first.
R.V.B. - Good luck with the release of the EP.
A: Thanks! Folks can find us anywhere on the internet, or just hop on www.middlesong.com
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
This interview may not be reproduced in any part or form without permission from this site.
For more information on Middlesong visit their Facebook page www.facebook.com/middlesong
For more information or to make a donation to help maintain this site contact musicguy247 (at) aol (dot) com
Musicguy247 has thousands of rare music items on Amazon... records, tapes, videos, books, CD's and more. Click here to view items
John Hall is an upstate New York - based musician who was a founding member of the band Orleans. With classic hits such as "Still the One" and "Dance with Me", John and Orleans had major radio air play and achieved popularity throughout the United States and the world. Eventually John started his own group called "The John Hall Band", which also pumped out hits on radio and MTV. John always showed concern for the environment and other civic issues, so he began to get involved with local politics in the upstate New York region. This led him to get elected to the Ulster County Legislature in 1989. He also served as trustee and President of the Saugerties Board of Education. With this experience behind him, John was eventually elected to the United States Congress in the 19th District of New York. That wasn't an easy task for him, as the incumbent was well entrenched with major big business backing, but John had help from musical friends such as Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, David Crosby, Graham Nash and many others. They helped him garner enough campaign money to get him elected. As a United States Congressman, John was very proud to work as Chairman of the Veterans sub-committee and was instrumental in passing "The Veterans Claims Modernization Act". This bill was passed unanimously by Republicans and Democrats and proved that it was possible for Congress to work together in a bi-partisan way. John has just released a memoir of his life in music and politics called "Still the One - A Rock 'n' Roll Journey to Congress and Back". I recently spoke with him about his career and his new book.
R.V.B. - Hello John... this is Robert von Bernewitz from Long Island New York, how are you today?
J.H. - I'm good Rob, how are you doing?
R.V.B. - It's a little hot down here. Is it hot up by you in upstate New York?
J.H. - It is. According to NASA and NOAA. It's been the hottest year so far, starting from January, since they started taking records in 1880. August has been pretty toasty also.
R.V.B. - We have issues with what us humans are doing to this planet. I appreciate all the good work that you've done for the environment.
J.H. - Thanks
R.V.B. - You had a passion and you went with it... which includes your music. You're a real go-getter.
J.H. - My parents raised me and my brothers to be as high achievers as we could be. When I was in school, I was on a physics track. I skipped two grades in school and went to Notre Dame University in South Bend Indiana at the age of 16. I had already been to 3 National Science Foundation summer programs in Worcester Massachusetts. I had also been on a track playing music. I've been playing piano since I was 5. I had 11 years of classical piano lessons. 6 years of French horn. I taught myself how to play the guitar. I played in every band I could find in high school and college. In Notre Dame, I was in a bluegrass band... an a cappella group... a rock and roll band. I played at frat parties. I played drum in a marching band.
R.V.B. - That's quite a variety.
J.H. - I loved trying new things, especially in music.
R.V.B. - Who did you like when you started playing the guitar?
J.H. - I started out with folk music. It was Pete Seeger and the Weavers... when I was like 5. My grandmother had their records. Then it was The Kingston Trio... Peter Paul and Mary... The Ventures... as I was moving to electric guitar rock and roll, it was The Beach Boys... The Beatles... The Kinks... and The Rolling Stones... etc. Then it was Jimi Hendrix.
R.V.B. - That seems like a natural progression.
J.H. - Yes... I think it was. My parents tried to talk me out of being a musician. After 1 year at Notre Dame and 1 semester at Loyola in Baltimore, I announced that I was going to drop out at school and play in a band in Georgetown on M Street. They brought an organist and trumpet player from a church in Baltimore to talk to me in Ellicott City, where my parents were living at the time and talked me out of being a musician. I think my parents were in the kitchen eve's dropping while this guy Matt Fraley and I sat in the living room and talked. He said "You know John... it's really a tough life. When you're a musician, you never get to stay home. You have to keep weird hours and there's a lot of traveling. You don't get to be around your family that much." I was thinking "When can I start? Sign me up!".
R.V.B. - I'm sure that didn't go over well with your P.H.D. father!
J.H. - I know. They were happy once they heard my music on the radio. They were really just afraid that I was throwing my life away. I'm a parent and I'm a grandparent now so I understand that fear for your kids wellbeing. My dad wanted his 3 sons to be scientists like himself. My mom was a devout Catholic and wound up with a Masters in Divinity and she taught at a Jesuit seminary. She wanted her sons to be priests. My younger brother was a priest and my older brother Jim, was an actuary... which is a probability specialist. I fell somewhere in between. The apple fell between the two trees. I wound up playing music. If you look at a sheet music page... it's a graph of pitch verses time. You're dealing with 3rd, 4th, 5th harmony... 32nd notes... 64th notes... whole notes... etc. It's a way of getting kids to learn math without knowing that, that's what's going on. My parents wanted me to be one of those things but they thought, as long as he's happy and he can make a living, then it's alright. They wound up being very proud of me. There's a picture of them with my wife and my daughter... when I got sworn into Congress... standing with the Speaker... with my hand on the bible. It came full circle.
R.V.B. - I know that you're from upstate New York, and a lot of great music came from up there. How did you enjoy the music scene at Georgetown and Greenwich Village? That was a happening time.
J.H. - It was amazing. I took a Greyhound bus from DC... after playing there with a couple of bands... up to Greenwich Village, because I heard that "Cafe Wha?" was holding auditions. This guitar player Teddy Spelies who played a serial number 5 Fender Broadcaster... which was before the Telecaster. It's really an valuable - old instrument. It's also a great sounding instrument. I got into a band with Teddy and we auditioned a couple of people and wound up with Norman Smart who went on to play in the band Mountain with Leslie West. Barbara Keith wrote the song "Free the People" for Delaney and Bonnie. She was a singer/songwriter and an acoustic guitar player. That made up the band we called Kangaroo. We were alternating sets at the "Cafe Wha?" with Bruce Springsteen and his band The Castiles. The Lovin' Spoonful were playing just around the corner at The Night Owl. When they went on the road supporting Do You Believe In Magic, The Flying Machine with James Taylor and Danny Kortchmar came in. Danny went on to play with Carole King. It was a very productive time and a historical time. None of us realized how legendary that time period would be. I'm proud to say I was a part of it.
R.V.B. - That was a very cool scene to be a part of. I know that you mentioned graphs, notes, and time signatures, but when you came out with "Still the One"... it had such a nice flow to it. I don't hear anything mathematical about it. I hear a wonderful, flowing analog sine wave song.
J.H. - Unless it's intended to be techno music, music shouldn't sound too mathematical. The idea is to write a song that sounds like it flows and sticks to you. If you had to write it out for someone to play it, you'd write a graph for sheet music or a chart. Then you might be able to identify that there's math involved. I never wanted people to listen to my songs and go "Wow, that's an interesting interval. It jumps an 11." It should just sound really good. My x-wife Johanna was co-writing with me at the time and she was talking with a friend of hers who was going through a divorce. Her friend said "Why don't you write a song about people who are staying together? It seems like so many people are breaking up". Johanna wrote the lyrics on the back of an envelope and handed it to me and said "Can you do something with this?". I said "Let me take a shot at it", and I wrote the music in 10 minutes. It was like falling off a log. It just cried out to have a rock intro. The chord changes and the harmonies all came from there. It can't always be this way, but it's the most successful song I've ever been involved with... or Orleans has ever recorded. For it to be a 10 minute write, it's really kind of amazing. "Dance with me" took much longer to write. Other songs like "You Can Dream of Me", which was a number one country hit for Steve Warner... that Steve and I wrote together... I started the chorus in the shower at the YMCA in Nashville after playing racquetball. Then I drove over to Steve's house... we had a date to get together to try and write something. I walked in humming the song and already had the chorus worked out. I finished the two verses and the bridge to it in a couple of hours... that's pretty quick. Sometimes I work on a song for years. It's like a puzzle, you work on it for a long time and the last piece finally falls in.
R.V.B. - I guess if there was a method and a book on this, everybody would be doing it.
J.H. - Haha. There is a million ways of writing a song... and they're all valid... and they all work at times.
R.V.B. - So you traveled around with Orleans in the upstate region and the northeast... How did you enjoy this time period?
J.H. - Well I love it. In the beginning we were a trio... Wells, Larry and me, and we'd be riding in a van with all the equipment packed behind us... in a blizzard... going from Ithaca to Rochester... and there was always the hazard that if you hit the car in front of you because you couldn't see... or if you drove off the road because the lines on the road were completely obscured by snow... if we ever had to stop suddenly or hit something... a Shure Vocal Master (Vocal Masher) column would take our heads off right through the front windshield. Fortunately, we survived and nothing like that ever happened, but it was dangerous and uncomfortable. We were on a mission. We were young and loved music... loved being a band and loved playing in front of people. We took some risks... during the more clement months it wasn't that bad driving from one show to another. We were fortunate to get to a point where we had a bus and a driver, and a truck for our equipment. Things got cushier there for a while.
J.H. - When I was campaigning, the first thing that happened was that I was having a hard time raising money. Imagine getting on a phone and calling your family, friends, and relatives, and asking them to contribute money to your campaign. The reason you start with them is because if you can't convince them that you're the right person for the office, you'll never convince anybody else. Then I went through all of my phone lists, and other peoples phone lists, and I was running out of people to call. I was not raising nearly enough money to run a campaign. Jackson Browne offered to come in and help. There were these renovated barns in the lower Hudson valley and he offered to do 4 barn concerts in a weekend... 2 on Saturday and 2 on Sunday. The 1st one we did was in Warwick, in Orange county New York, had Jon Pousette Dart Band, Dar Williams, Jackson Browne and myself. We did kind of a round robin where everyone would take turns playing a song and we all would back each other up and harmonize with each other. When we were finished, someone yelled from the back of the room "How much for "Take it Easy"? Jackson said "How much do you have?". Then someone on my staff said "What's the legal FEC limit?". Someone said "$2,000". That was the most any individual could contribute to a campaign at the time. The guy that asked said "I'm passing up a check". A check for $2,000 for John Hall for congress gets handed up to the front of the room. Jackson starts singing the song and we're all strumming along and singing... and the crowd is singing along. There was about 200 people in a barn. When we finished that someone else yelled how much for The Pretender? It was another 2 grand. We started auctioning songs off. Some of them went for a little less. It was one of many magical moments. Jackson had a lot of things to do, and he could be playing concerts to make money for himself, and he flew across the country at his own expense to come in and do these fundraisers to help me to get elected to congress. It was not the biggest crowd but it was one of the magic moments. Playing with Bonnie Raitt and Nancy Griffith... and her playing with Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal at a house party. Playing "Teach Your Children" with David Crosby and Graham Nash at a house party in Westchester was really fabulous. I've been a fan of theirs since they started out. I was a fan before that, when The Hollies were big. It was a thrill for me to get to play with them all. I had already worked with them in the No-Nukes projects but to have them campaigning for me... I joked about that I didn't have Exxon and Mobil but I have Jackson and Bonnie. It was the only way I could raise enough money to have a competitive campaign. In 2006 it was approximately $1,500,000, which I never dreamed I'd be able to raise. By the time the 2008 campaign came around, it was up to 2 million. The 2010 campaign I had raised 2.6 million... which I wound up losing... was the 1st election after the Supreme Court's United decision. I got outspent by 5 million dollars of dark Super PAC money that came from outside the districts... outside the State... un-disclosed sources. Unless something happens to change the ruling of the Supreme Court, that will continue. It's unbelievable that it even allows foreign corporations to contribute to US political campaigns against certain candidates that they want to defeat. That means that other countries can try to run our military policy... our foreign policy... our energy policy... you name it. This should absolutely be illegal. The American people have not woken up yet but we're starting to. Citizens United was a coup against our democracy that was executed by the Supreme Court. We need a different Supreme Court majority, to be able to turn things around.
R.V.B. - I know that you did a lot of things from your heart and change things for the better for people. Did it bother you in the fact that in the life of a musician is kind of a happy go lucky life where you may run into an occasional bad club owner but then you go into politics which can tend to get nasty?
J.H. - Politics can be nasty and honestly the music business can be also. I answered this question when I was running for office... how do you make the transition? I apprenticed in a business that's cleaner than a driven snow and has nothing to do with money. Payola was a term invented... referring to rock and roll records being paid for by the promoter or record company to get their songs played on the radio. It began with Allan Freed in Cleveland. There were congressional hearings on payola. Nobody is pure here. (Haha) I can take being down and dirty. Look, if you can't play hard ball and grow a thick skin, you probably shouldn't run for office. You also need a sense of humor. It's one of the best ways of ending an argument or changing a subject. I'm glad I'm back in music now. I'm a lucky guy. I got to play and do something that I love and make a living at it... basically all my life. The 4 years I served in Congress was the hardest work I ever did... 13 hour days... 7 days a week for 4 years. Not to mention the time I was campaigning before that to get there. It's easily the hardest I ever worked. I also got to go to Afghanistan to have lunch with our soldiers in Kandahar. I got to drive an icebreaker ship on the Hudson river that the Coast Guard was using to break up the ice in the shipping channel. I got to fly the C-5 transport simulator at Stewart Air Base. I got to meet heads of state and members of the cabinet in Israel... in Germany... in Iraq. I served under President George W. Bush for 2 years and then under President Obama for 2 years. I got to work with 2 guys... I don't agree with everything they did but they both treated me with respect. I was brought up to treat the office with respect. I went to the White House when George W. Bush was hosting a reception for the class of 2006 for newly elected members of congress. I had my picture taken with him and Laura Bush. I shook their hands and said "Thank you very much for your hospitality Mr. President. It's an honor to meet you both". He said "It's an honor to have you here". I sat through two of his State of the Unions and through two of Barack Obama's State of the Unions. I would never have dreamed of yelling "You lie!"... in the middle of a quiet spot. A Republican representative named Joe Wilson from South Carolina did that to President Obama. It was clearly disrespectful and accusational. I was just not brought up that way. I must be too old fashioned. We'd be better off as a country if we went back to remembering that everybody's human. We should argue against a policy, if we disagree with it, but not make it personal. I know it's a big step back to the abyss but it would probably be a good one for us to take.
R.V.B. - You did a lot of good things during your tenure in Congress. You should be proud of yourself of your civic duty. I thank you for it. I know you had mentioned Pete Seeger earlier. You got to meet him a few times?
J.H. - I organized a benefit to stop the MX missile from being built. (Multiple Independent Re-entry vehicles) where one ICBM can carry 10 different warheads, so it can hit 10 targets. I thought it would ramp up the arms race and make for a shorter hair trigger on both sides... with us and the Russians. I organized a protest and rally on the steps of the Capitol. Senator Ted Kennedy was there and Senator Ed Markey was there. John Sebastian came down and performed. Run DMC was there... Pete Seeger was there. I got a pretty good group of musical artist's and political notables... and my mother. After the event was over, Congressman Ed Markey (at the time) said to me, Pete, and my mom, "Do you guys have lunch plans? Why don't you join me for lunch in the Capitol dining room?". We all said "Yes, We'd love to". We were sitting at a table for 4. My mom was very social able and never met anyone that she couldn't have a conversation with. Pete was kind of the same way. We were sitting there and talking as we were surrounded by other members of Congress and their guests and I mentioned to Pete that after the No-Nukes concerts... I had already served in lower office at the County level and the school board in Saugerties New York, where I lived... People had already started talking to me about running for Congress. Congressman Markey said "Don't do it! We need you where you are. You're reaching many more people by writing songs... getting the political points across in the lyrics of the songs". Jokingly he said "Sometimes I think I should be a newscaster like Dan Rather... to present the news the way I think it should be presented". I said "Don't do it! We need you where you are". (Haha) As time went on, Pete and I did play together numerous times during campaigns. He played banjo without any amplification at the opening party for my first campaign office. When I won the race for the 19th congressional district in New York, I became his Congressman. I had a lot of connections with Pete and I'm very proud of that... rest his soul. He was a statesman of the Hudson Valley. He went from being somebody who was controversial with being on the banned list during the McCarthy era. When he was banned from being on radio and television it really put a crimp in his career. By the time he reached old age and was the elder statesman of folk music. Everybody in this area loved him. He had done a lot of important work to clean up the Hudson river. People were very grateful for that. My musical contacts were interesting and wider then I could of imagined. At the No-Nukes concerts I remember David Bowie came back stage. He was hanging out and sitting on a road case. Graham Nash and I went up to him and introduced ourselves and tried to talk him into doing a song... any song. We had all the best musicians from New York and LA there. We had Russ Kunkel, Jim Keltner, my drummer, Steve Gadd, and many other great musicians on any instrument you can name. David could just call out a key. We knew a lot of his songs. He didn't have to have makeup or any costume on. We didn't quite talk him into it. Steven Tyler from Aerosmith came out and sang a chorus of "Power" with us. Carly Simon was helping me teach the song to Steve Tyler backstage. I realized watching them, that they had the same smile. The widest smiles in pop music.
R.V.B. - I could picture that.
J.H. - I conspired to get them to sing on the same microphone so the camera would catch them smiling and singing. (Haha) Paul Simon showed up unannounced and played a version of "Me and Julio" with just him on the guitar. It was great and the crowd went crazy. There were bands there like Bruce Springsteen and the East Street Band, The Doobie Brothers... with Mike McDonald at that time... and on and on. It was just an amazing experience. The relationships that I had with those artists continued and most of them supported my campaign. I'm very grateful for that.
R.V.B. - I saw a picture of you in a magazine with a Daryl Oates tee shirt. Did you have to explain yourself a lot? (Haha)
J.H. - (Haha) It's a joke. Hall and Oates and Orleans actually played together a lot back when we both were starting out. They took of a little quicker than we did and we opened for them a couple of times. When I was on the road with Little Feat... while I had the John Hall Band... their crew was getting a lot of questions about this. "Is this the John Hall from Hall and Oates?". They would have to explain "No. That's Daryl Hall and John Oates". They got so tired of explaining it, they made tee shirts that said "Daryl Oates is no longer with us". I got one and I wore it in that picture.
R.V.B. - (Haha) It's a classic picture.
J.H. - I live pretty close to Daryl in Duchess County in upstate New York. When I order pizza, sometimes the pizza guy goes "Is that Daryl Hall or John Hall?". I guess he orders from the same pizza place.
R.V.B. - What accomplishments are you proud of during your time in Congress?
J.H. - I'm proud of the work that I did for our Veterans. I was appointed in 2007 to be the chairman of subcommittee on disabilities for Veterans. The backlog of disability payments to cover for injuries to service men during their service to our country. There's a different kind of war going on now because there's no front and back lines. When I went to the green zone in Iraq and slept there, they told us we had to sleep with our helmets and body armor on because the previous week they had lost 2 soldiers to incoming mortar fire. The green zone was only a couple of miles across and a mortar could easily reach that far. Although I didn't serve myself... I was called for the draft and I went for my physical and I was turned away for physical reasons. 40 years later I wound up being appointed to chair this subcommittee on disabilities. One case in particular that I'm especially proud of is... a World War 2 vet was on 2 ships that were sunk from under him out in the pacific... one by a kamikaze pilot and one by a torpedo. He found himself floating in the dark twice. He was out of site of land and tried to rescue his shipmates from the big ship and drag them on to the lifeboat. His buddies had to hold him back so they could row away and not be caught in the current of the sinking ship. It's like a bad Twilight Zone episode. He had gone to the VA in the 70's and they told him that he was a schizophrenic with a preexisting condition, therefore the VA did not owe him anything. He had PTSD. When I talked to him to ask him questions on what happened, he couldn't stop shaking and crying. He had never been able to hold a job or maintain a relationship. He was sleeping in his best friends guest room. It was a really a sad case of a guy whose government had failed him. We got that reversed. Because I was chairman I could hold hearings up in the Hudson Valley and gearings in Washington DC and bring this to light... and have it covered by the media. Leaders of organizations like the VFW, The American Legion, IAVA, Vietnam Veterans of America, all came to testify before the subcommittee I was chairing. We got Ken Macdonald (the serviceman I'm talking about) fully covered and $98,000 back pay disability and $2400 a month for the rest of his life. At that point it was all worth it... just for this one thing. We did a lot of other things also. I passed a bill to speed up the claims process for veterans. It was called the Veterans Claims Modernization Act... in 2008. It was passed in both the Senate and the House with a yes vote by every Democrat and every Republican in Congress. It was signed into law by President George W. Bush, who called it good government in his signing document. I was like "Miracles can happen". I wasn't the biggest fan of President Bush but we all got together on a bill that this Democrat started because there was common ground and it was something we could all agree on. I think we need to work back toward that as a country... like clean water. After Flint... after Charleston West Virginia... after Bennington Vermont... where there is either lead in the water or PFOA in the water... and various other poisons that we are now finding out about. Members of both parties should both be able to agree that we should have clean drinking water. Whatever steps we have to take, the government should take them. That means we should all have to pay for them through taxes. I'm not saying we have to raise a huge amount of taxes but maybe we can shift money from somewhere else. It's basically our children's health. In the case of lead, it causes retardation... especially in the young brain. We started with the vets and go into clean water and then go into something else... like infrastructure. Everybody agrees that we should rebuild our roads and bridges, and our failing 50 year old sewerage treatment plants. Let's do it and we'll create jobs in the process, and make the country more productive and safer to live in. These are the kind of things I think we should be doing. I know it's not going to happen until after the election but try and put partisanship aside, find common ground, and build on it. That's my speech and I'm sticking to it.
R.V.B. - How did you get involved with sailing? Did anything ever go wrong during one of your sailing adventures?
J.H. - I had some things go wrong. When I was young, things went wrong and I felt like I was getting shipwrecked. It was never as bad as it seemed when you were a kid. I sailed to Atlantic City via the ocean one time with my younger brother Gerry on a 37 footer, that my parents and I owned at the time. The big genoa got wound around the headstay. They call it an hourglass sail because it looks like a balloon at the top, middle, and bottom. When you're running an inlet on a fowling sea it can be very dangerous if the boat were to be turned. The stern could be lifted up on every wave and it tries to turn the boat sideways, and once your sideways, those big waves can roll you. We had to sail in with the help of the engine and get out of the wind and into the harbor by the marina there. Then we could gradually get the knots out in the channel. That was a minor mishap. I sailed with my wife Melanie north from Key West to Martha's Vineyard. On the way off shore from Cape May to Block Island we took a straight shot south off Long Island, and the rudder came loose when we were almost to Block Island. Fortunately the wind was very mild and the sea was mild. I had to go down below while somebody steered very gently. The steering quadrant was going to break off completely and we would of had an emergency tiller put in.
There are always backup systems but I had to go down below with a flashlight and a screwdriver and a wrench and put these nuts and bolts back into the steering quadrant. I was calling up through the hatch "Wait for a quiet spot. Wait until the waves die down and take your hand off the steering wheel so there's no torque on it at all". The guy at the helm would do that and as soon as things held still for 5 seconds, I'd put one more bolt in it and quick throw the nut on the other side. We managed to get it temporarily tight enough to get us into the new Harbor on Block Island. A mechanic came out and fixed it there while we were tied up at a dock. All kinds of things can happen while you're sailing. In sailing, stuff happens and in life, stuff happens. You learn to deal with it and make lemonade out of lemons.
R.V.B. - It's all part of life's experiences - right?
J.H. - That's right.
R.V.B. - Thank you for this opportunity of chatting about your career and your accomplishments
J.H. - Your welcome.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
This interview may not be reproduced in any part or form without permission from this site.
Thank you to Anne Leighton
For more information on this site contact musicguy247 (at) aol (dot) com
Musicguy247 has thousands of music items on Amazon... records, tapes, videos, books, CD's and more. Click here to view items. Musical items for sale