The following is the long, unmixed, raw feed of the Tom Verlaine phone interview I did. The distilled version article can be found in the latest print issue of Pop Culture Press magazine, which you should be able to find at your nearest Borders books, or at most cool Indy record and book shops!
Verlaine Interview, August 2006:
Tom Verlaine @ Pittsburgh Arts Festival
d.n.l : We saw you play in Pittsburgh, and it was the last of the U.S. tour and before you started the European part. Was there any difference in how you’re received here versus there?
TV: No, I wouldn’t say there was any difference in how we were received. Of course, over there it was just two guitarists, I didn’t bring the bassist and drummer.
dnl: It was you & Jimmy?
Dnl: That would change the dynamics a lot. It (Pitt) was a lot more of a rock show than the one I saw at the Wex.
TV: Oh sure.
Dnl: How much more difference was there between the stuff you did with just Jimmy than the stuff you did with the entire band?
TV: Some of the same songs, just imagine it without bass & drums, that’s all
dnl: I have a hard time imagining “Word from the Front” done w/o bass & drums
tv: Well, it’s not so easy, but it’s a three chord song. Most of the songs are written with one guitar and a voice. Of course there’s an enormous difference.
Dnl: The music you did here was done with the film in mind. That’s got to be a lot different than just going out and doing your songs.
TV: No. It’s more like hearing a folk concert with electric guitars. The low=keyness is what I actually like about it. It’s certainly not for people who want to hear big bass drums walloping, loud guitar. It’s a lot of fun to do.
Dnl: I would like to see that as well. Those two experiences being the only two Tom Verlaine experiences I’ve ever had, it was kind of great to have a sort of balance, the film music experience versus the rock show. I guess if I died tomorrow I’d be satisfied in that regard.
Dnl: I noticed in looking over your solo albums that Jimmy only makes a sporadic appearance here and there, and it seems odd because you sound so perfect together. How come you’ve never done like an entire album just you and him?
TV: Well, my solo records are basically arranged by me so when I go to do tours, he’s been touring with me since ‘81, I just call him up and give him the records and say “play that song and that song and that song...” He’s an incredibly fast learner, which is why I’ve used him for years. I don’t need but two days of rehearsal to have a whole show together. He’s also intuitive enough on the improvisational kind of junk. I can steer him towards anything.
Dnl: well, that’s what I picked up on and that’s why I wondered why there wasn’t more of that in the studio context. Might I suggest that for someday? It’s something a lot of people don’t know about. Going back to show you did here (film show) it almost seems as though you composed it together.
TV: I would say that he contributed more on that, yeah, as a writer on that film thing. He’s also really good with effects, and the effects was a big part of the whole sound so that lends itself to the overall sound.
Dnl: There’s also the juxtaposition of your appearance: he looks more like a biker dude you wouldn’t wanna’ mess with and you look like a little more book-ish...
dnl: and he’s standing on one side of the stage and you’re on the other...
TV: Well I’m actually in the middle but...
Dnl: And a lot of people wouldn’t guess that you’re the more intimidating one.
TV: I don’t know about that (laughs). It depends on the situation.
dnl: Going from the group to the first album was a bit of a jump.
TV: Not really. If you write songs the whole crucial thing is how does anybody perform those songs. So, you just always work with the musicians you know or have worked with before on some occasion or another that you know that can contribute in a way that isn’t demanding that you have to waste a lot of time explaining things to them. You get drummers that over-play on everything, and you’d be arguing with them forever just to get a song on tape. If you can a drummer that comes in and says “How about this?” and it’s 90% done already. Likewise with the sound of their kits, what do their drumkits sound like? Do they have 8 tom-toms and nineteen cymbals? Or does he have a little jazz kit. Whether you’re doing something in a band setting, a lot of it has to do with the players. So, coming out of that band and doing a solo record was not hard to do because I played with Jay Dee (the drummer) before...
Dnl: and obviously with Fred (Smith). I noticed that you’ve always used the same groups of people, but it was never like the Tom Verlaine band or something...going on to ‘Dreamtime’ which is the one that everyone seems to think of as the “masterpiece” Tom Verlaine solo album.
TV: I haven’t heard that before.
Dnl: well, let’s skip to ‘Words from the Front,’ which is where I started. It’s my personal favorite, and yet I never see it getting the same respect that some of the others have. The song “Days on the Mountain” sounds like not just unlike anything else that you’ve done, but unlike anything that anyone has ever done. I have to ask, what went into that? What’s behind that?
TV: Well, I just wanted to do something with a drum-loop and I had this kind of poem, for lack of a better word. I wanted to kind of set that up, I had some melodies I wanted to use, I tried to improvise a little over some themes.
DNL:...and Lene Lovich...
TV: on saxophone, yeah. There’s quite a few guitars and, I think there’s a cheesy Casio melody and double tracked saxophone in the middle playing that theme, trying to get a more orchestral sound there.
DNL: Yeah, and it works, it’s very orchestral. It also sounds very much like it’s in the mountains and I just wondered how somebody in a studio in NYC can make something that sounds like that.
TV: Some imagination there I guess, I’ve been through mountain ranges before, the Alps and upstate Vermont.
DNL: Was there more to the song? Because it sounds as though it fades out.
TV: No, actually, there isn’t really more on tape than what is there. I sort of had the idea to do a second part to that at some point but I never did.
DNL: Going on from there ‘Cover’ seemed like a more concise pop record , for lack of a better word. What were you going for there? Didn’t you work with Bill Laswell on that one?
TV: My only experience with Laswell was that I hired him to play bass for two hours.
TV: Yeah. I don’t know if you’re getting stuff off of the internet, I’ve noticed. Well, I haven’t done interviews in almost twenty years and I’ve noticed this year in doing interviews that people ask me a lot of questions and it’s really funny because the internet is filled with misinformation. And people reference it all the time and they print things all of the time. Someone steered me to some site called ‘quotes’ the other day and it has anywhere from thirty to three hundred quotes from anybody that you’ve heard of, so I looked up my quotes and they’re all wrong. They’re either out of context and even when they’re correct they’re not word for word correct. They’re from some journalist who possibly was half drunk or on speed writing something down in a bar or something, so it’s so packed with crap that you’ve gotta’ think, I’ve actually talked with someone about making them take it down, because it actually is fraud.
DNL: Especially if they put quotation marks on it because if they reference what they think you mean that’s one thing. I’m more of a facts person, I go by what’s on the records.
TV: Well, anyway, Laswell played bass on that so that’s all I know of Bill. I actually don’t like his production at all. I actually can’t think of an album that he’s done that I liked. I did like his bass playing from some record back in there, so it was like “why don’t you call him up?”
DNL: Yeah, well he was actually in this great band with Fred Frith called Massacre, it was just amazing stuff.
TV: Yeah, Frith is pretty amazing.
DNL: going onward from there, you had ‘Flashlight,’ which came out as an import before it was available here.
TV: Maybe for about a month, because the American company was mad because of imports hurting their sales, but it wasn’t a very long period.
DNL: That one, as far as I’m aware, has the most Jimmy Ripp playing on it.
TV: Actually, Ripp didn’t play on it at all! (Laughs) The idiot A&R man insisted that I use another guitarist, I said okay, because I had done a record in Europe and he refused to put it out and I said “well, what do you want from me? Just throw me off the label if you’re not going to put the records out” and he said “Well maybe we’ll put it out but go do another record. So I said “Okay, sure” and I went to NY and in three months did a record, came back, and he said “where’d you get the guitarist” and I said “it’s all live, I did it with this other guy Jimmy and he said “oh yeah, I know him from your tour” and says “well this record’s much better” and he hands it to some bozo clubby kid to remix in the studio and it’s a horribly mixed record, I can’t listen to that record, it’s so shrieky bright with the snare samples banging in you head.
DNL: and it has you and Fred (Smith) credited as producing it
TV: Well, that was in the contract, he had to do that.
DNL: Paul Duffy was the mixer.
TV: Yeah, whoever and wherever he is.
DNL: One thing I noticed about that album and ‘the Wonder’...
TV: Yeah, he did that again. I did the record in the states, turned it in, heard nothing from the label and I figured that they’d thrown me off and I called somebody in England who said “you better call you label’ and I called the label and they said “Oh, your record’s coming out in two weeks didn’t someone talk to you about coming over here?” I said “no one ever told me that record’s coming out.” I asked who mixed it and she said “you don’t know anything about it?” and I said “No. This is ridiculous” and she apparently went to the A&R guy and screamed at him for being such a complete idiot.
DNL: You’ve had some great luck with record labels.
TV: Yeah but these are bad stories, I could tell you a lot worse ones about an awful lot of people I know. These are not really untypical , it might even be worse now actually.
DNL: I’m sure it is. You’re lucky to be on a label that is good with artists like you. You came up in an era where all of your stuff was on major labels up until ‘W&C’ on Ryko, which I would actually consider to be a major. There’s so much bullshit in the record business that it’s amazing that anything great ever comes out. I have all kinds of weird stuff in my record collection that came out on major labels way back, you just wonder how an M. Frog Labatt album came out on Warner Bros. And shit like that.
TV: (laughs) Right!
DNL: To a degree, it’s kind of the same with you. You have your following, but you’re the kind of artist that is never going to sell a hundred billion records and end up on top 40 radio. I hope you never do!
TV: Well I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having hits, but unless you’re being promoted well.
DNL: Well, I don’t know if you’ve heard top 40 radio lately.
TV: In the last 15 years it’s gotten much worse, in thirty years it’s gotten worse and worse and worse. If you listened to it in the early ‘60s it was actually pretty interesting, and in the ‘50s it was even more interesting because you’d have novelty tunes next to guitar instrumentals, next to doo-wop, you had an incredible variety of stuff. Now everything sounds like it comes out of the same factory.
DNL: I all has that same vocal sound.
TV: It’s all incredibly dullsville. It’s a shame.
DNL: It just sounds the same except with different music styles.
TV: Yeah, the production sounds the same, the guitar sounds the same. There’s apparently some big Bob Dylan article, I think in the Guardian, where he talks about these sort of things and he wasn’t ranting, but I thought he was really pretty truthful about the whole thing. He also talked about himself having made some really kind of nowheresville records.
DNL: yeah, and at least he admits it.
TV: yeah exactly.
DNL: he’s gotten to make a ton of records, and people will buy them regardless but there was quite a gap in between really stellar Bob Dylan records.
TV: Yup, that’s true. He’s so prolific but he was like Prince, people would put out everything. I can see the sense in that, then people can pick out what they want over the years. A pile of stuff. I sometimes think I should’ve done that myself, just make a record a year, I have piles of junk I never bothered to record. I should just record all of the time and put it out.
DNL: well those of us who waited fourteen years are totally behind you on getting all of that stuff out.
DNL: I’d hate to think of my little baby being in junior high the next time a Tom Verlaine record comes out! Going back to ‘Flashlight’ and ‘the Wonder.’ ‘Flashlight’ came out recently on Collector’s Choice, but ‘the Wonder’ you can’t even find it.
TV: yeah that one disappeared right away. I think Japan still has it out, and it’s still in the catalog in the German stores, at least they said they could order it.
DNL: Well, there’s kind of a problem with all of the Fontana stuff, because it was like a reactivated label that got lost in the whole miasma of the great Polygram/Universal buyout thing.
TV: The Fontana thing was actually my idea. I was on Virgin and this guy from Phonogram kept calling me and so I had dinner with him and I made a deal to get off of Virgin and get onto Phonogram and I said ‘Don’t you own the Fontana name?” and he said “I think we do” and I said “Well why don’t we start Fontana over because it’s such a cool logo and it’s a neat thing, and people like Scott Walker and Miles Davis had that soundtrack album on it.
DNL: Wow, so you were behind that?
TV: So he said “let me look into it” and then he said “Okay, we can use that” and I think at the same time the same creepy A&R guy made a deal to get a percentage of it as his custom label. There’s nothing wrong with that, I guess, but I know he ran up unbelievable bills on people. Half a million, quarter of a million dollar bills on people who could never possibly make that kind of money back.
DNL: Pere Ubu...
DNL: It’s weird, I have such a fondness for that label and that stuff.
TV: They put out a couple of Julian Cope solo records too.
DNL: Julian, Lilac Time did their best stuff on there.
TV: Huh! Were they on Fontana?
DNL: Yeah, and Pere Ubu did two albums there, their most commercial ones, but it’s kind of a shame that you helped come up with the idea of them doing that and they screwed you over.
TV: They just had crazy ideas about commerciality, which is basically just mixing and mixing and mixing, and this is the horror of the whole modern record business is getting the guy who mixed the latest hits from Blah-Blah to mix your record and thus insure it will be played on the radio when the mix will have nothing to do with what you actually want or are doing. Plus, all of these people overcharge like crazy. I can’t blame them, in a way. Why not if you can get it.
DNL: So, in a way there’s kind of like, in terms of a pure Tom Verlaine album, you have to jump from ‘Cover’ to ‘Warm & Cool.’
TV: In terms of mixes, yeah. In terms of a sound thing, maybe half of ‘the Wonder’ isn’t as bad in terms of a mix as ‘Flashlight’ is. I still like those songs and he couldn’t screw it up too much because what’s on tape is what’s on tape but certainly putting in all of these drum samples doesn’t help it.
DNL: It just makes it sound so ‘80s, it’s so unnecessary because it was music that transcended time and now it just sounds so dated.
TV: Yeah, exactly.
DNL: It would be really nice if, well I don’t what the possibilities of getting them back in your possession and fixing them would be.
TV: No, you can’t really do that. Sometimes, if you pay for it yourself, you can remix it, but Collectors Choice, who knows what their game is.
DNL: They licenced it from IRS or from EMI.
TV: I don’t know who owns IRS now.
DNL: EMI. They bought it the same time they bought up Chrysalis and basically gutted the labels out and kept the prominent artists. The people who owned those labels, Copeland and Chris Ellis, just wanted out. It’s kind of a shame, the same thing happened with A&M....well, let’s just wish that someday in an alternate universe you get those back and can do them justice but. I would love to hear the rest of ‘the Wonder,’ I just have the EP.
TV: What’s on the EP?
DNL: It’s ‘Shimmer’ with “Bomb” and another version of “Scientist Writes a Letter.”
Apparently there was another one that came out from that album as well. This was all I ever found from that album.
Going on to ‘Warm & Cool’...it sounds like it was sort of a relief to record it after the previous two...
TV: Well, I wouldn’t call it relief. It’s always fun to make a record. That was just a couple of nights in the studio, I figured I would finish this one on my own and sell it “as-is” to somebody. So that’s how that deal came about, by actually doing everything on my own with my own money and finding people who wanted to put it out.
DNL: Was that a reaction to doing things the big-label way of doing things that you’d just gone through?
TV: Not necessarily. I just thought that’s a quick way to do that kind of record because there’s no “mass-market” for instrumental music, and I had wanted to do something like that for years. There’s no interest from the big labels for that. It was satisfying to not have to spend a lot of time with dealing with a lot of people in getting the record out.
DNL: It’s such a pure album, it has such a warm feeling to it. In a way, it’s kind of like, you know how Brian Eno did his album ‘Music for Films’ as a kind of hopeful thing to get directors to use his music? I don’t think you did it overtly, but it’s almost like you were inviting offers of the same...it did kind of lead to that.
TV: No, not really. I’ve done very little film music.
DNL: Well, yeah I know, but isn’t that how the director from ‘Love & a.45' heard your music?
TV: Yeah, but he knew the other stuff too throughout the years.
DNL: Then there’s ‘Big Bad Love’...
TV: Well, that’s basically stuff off of ‘Warm & Cool’ and the Kronos string quartet was dubbed onto the other piece. It’s a nice sound. They did a really good job.
DNL: Yeah, it’s beautiful. There’s another possibility for a direction!
TV: Yeah, and I know one of the fellows in that band (Kronos). They’re really nice people.
DNL: They seem like it. I’ve seen them several times, actually, and I’ve seen them do one of your songs as well.
TV: They did do a version of “Marquee Moon” at one point. They did it nice, I thought, too.
DNL: I saw them do that twice, and the second time they also did “Purple Haze.” It’s amazing how well it translates.
(Skip the Television part)
DNL: Then there’s the compilation ‘the Millers Tale.’
TV: Which I’ve never been paid a dime for. EMI is very famous for that.
DNL: Virgin put that together...how much can I send you for royalties for my copy of it?
TV: (laughs) That’s okay. I could get a lawsuit together but I don’t think I’m going to get much. They’ll claim that it’s out of print, but in fact that record’s been in print since about 1997.
DNL: Yeah, ‘96 it says on the back.
TV: Ten years and it’s still in shops in Europe.
DNL: Yeah, well I got it in Pittsburgh, as an import, but it’s pretty easy to come by. What disappointed me about it was my favorite song by you they only has a live version of.
DNL: From what I’ve read, you continued you write and record during that long period, it just never got made into album form, or come together.
TV: I wouldn’t put it that way, I did the silent film thing, which was a gig every couple of months for a couple of years, then I worked on a lot of stuff around the house but I didn’t really feel like recording it. I did a tour with Patti Smith for one summer, which was just a fun thing to do, then Television did a couple of tours. Televison actually plays anywhere from a week to six weeks every year, for like the last sixteen years. So there’s all of those little things going on over the years.
DNL: Hey there’s another thing in there I want to mention. And it always seems to me that you’ve been unjustly maligned on because it’s my favorite record by him, and that’s the Jeff Buckley album.
TV: Oh the Buckley record, yeah. Well, again, that wasn’t supposed to be the record, they didn’t know what to do with it. He wanted to work with me and I thought they thought that was a ridiculous idea but...
DNL: I don’t know why.
TV: Because well, I’m not a goldmine for anybody. They probably would’ve loved it if he wanted to work with Mariah Carey’s producer or something. So they finally called me up and said “he really wants to work with you, do you want to go in (the studio) for three days?” I said “Sure!” I basically treated it like “let’s see what the songs are.” But that’s what they got, and then six months later they called me up to do the same thing again but this time said three weeks and I said “Okay” but actually it was ten days, and that’s what they got again, and it was all just like “here it is.”
DNL: Did you go to Easley’s?
TV: Yeah I went down to Easley’s which I thought was a cool place to work, really. He wanted to work there as well. It’s been sold, from what I hear. Then, about a week after he died, they called as asked if I could go into the studio and help this guy sort through the tracks and I said “well, there were track sheets,” because I knew that they would do this, they would hire some Mr. Big Mixer and pay him a fortune to remix this stuff. He puts the bass drum, the vocal and the snare on ten and everything else at five and compresses it and there’s your mix. All the tons of very interesting guitar flavorings and moods in there that you don’t really notice. On the other hand, the songs were good, played live by a band and they didn’t pro-tool the whole thing and slickened it up.
DNL: I thought that they didn’t do too bad by it. The guitars sound great on it. They must’ve been really loud if you thought they were turned down.
TV: It’s not that they were...I never really mixed it. There was no mix by me of that record. There were a lot of other shades.
DNL: I think it was the right way to go, to do an instrumental record and a vocal oriented one. It would be hard to imagine that being a two record set.
TV: It would’ve been a double CD with back and forth I suppose, but it’s better the way I put it out.
DNL: What are your plans, going forward?
TV: I might try to get a record together this winter again. There’s so much stuff I haven’t recorded, and I have all of these new things I want to try.
DNL: Well there’s the Jimmy Ripp and Tome Verlaine album, and then the Tom Verlaine and Kronos album, and Tom Verlaine and drum machine album, so you’ve got a lot of things to think about there.
TV: Yeah. I hope I can get something out in the next year and a half. It would be good to do.