Monday, September 1, 2014

Go Ahead and Hate Your Neighbor

"One Tin Soldier" - Written by Dennis Lambert & Brian Potter.

"Listen children to a story that was written long ago..."

You know the song.  Maybe you learned it at summer camp.  Maybe you remember it from the movie "Billy Jack." Or maybe you've heard it on the radio repeatedly.  But you know it.  "One Tin Soldier" is a song that endures. After 45 years, it's seemingly as popular as ever.

What makes a great song? A memorable melody, a message that resonates, and the ability to be interpreted in any number of versions.  As you will see and hear in the videos linked in this post, OTS works as a pop song, a bluegrass number, as comic fodder, and in genres from country to alternative rock.  And that's barely scratching the surface of what one can find on YouTube.

OTS was written in 1969 by Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter, who produced it as a single for the Canadian band The Original Caste.  

That version was a Top 40 hit, but the song became even better known when the band Coven recorded it for the soundtrack of the cult classic film, "Billy Jack."  Coven's version of OTS was named the Number One Most Requested Song in 1971 and 1973 by American Radio Broadcasters.

Skeeter Davis recorded OTS in 1972, earning a Grammy nomination for Best Female Country Vocal.

  This animated version comes from The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour. 

I got in touch with Dennis Lambert, who kindly agreed to answer my questions about the writing of OTS.  It would take a full post just to cover the highlights of his composing and producing career, so let me share just a few highlights: 12 Grammy nominations, 80 Top 100 hits, writing or co-writing songs such as "Ain't No Woman Like the One I've Got" (Four Tops), "We Built This City" (Starship), "Nightshift" (Commodores), producing "Rhinestone Cowboy" (Glen Campbell), "Baby Come Back" (Player), "Rock and Roll Heaven" (Righteous Brothers) and so on.  Click the link beneath his picture for a full bio.

Dennis Lambert @lambertsongs
Dennis is also the subject of an award-winning 2009 feature documentary titled "Of All The Things."  
"It’s the most unlikely comeback of the year.  Dennis Lambert was one of the most successful and diverse songwriter/producers of the 70’s and 80’s.  Today, he’s a 60-year-old family man selling real estate in Florida.  But it turns out his obscure 1972 solo album Bags and Things is huge – in the Philippines.  A Filipino concert promoter has been begging Dennis to tour for decades, and in 2007 he finally agreed.  Of All the Things is a hilarious, touching and winning pop/rock/country/R&B documentary that follows Dennis on his whirlwind tour as he rediscovers his passion for music – a two-week adventure that takes him from the comforts of Boca Raton to a sold-out show at Manila’s famous Araneta Coliseum for thousands of fans he never knew he had.  Some lives deserve and encore, indeed." --
I've yet to see this film, but after reading that synopsis, it's at the top of my list.

Without Further ado, here's my Q&A with Dennis:

1 - Did you know what the treasure was going to be when you started writing or was it something that evolved?

Dennis Lambert:  I had a general idea that we would attempt to tell a story about the futility of war and use a fable-like device for its style.  The specific “treasure” was a revelation somewhere in the process.

2 - Wikipedia claims that the chord progression of OTS's verses is based on Pachelbel's Canon. True? If so, intentional?

DL:  It is not an uncommon chord progression and I would think there are many songs that have a similar feeling using parts of Pachelbel’s Canon.  It was not intentional on my part to use that piece.

3 - Did you write OTS specifically for the band The Original Caste or was it something you had in your back pocket when you started working with them?

DL:  We wrote it for them specifically having signed them to our label, TA Records.  Since they were a folk-rock based band, it was a good fit, assuming they would like the song.  Needless to say, they did.

4 - Many famous songwriting teams consist of a lyricist and a composer. But you and Brian Potter both did words and music. What was the process like when you wrote OTS?

DL:  A lot of songwriting teams from the '60s era forward consisted of people who would sit in a room together and hammer out a song.  While generally speaking, someone did more of one thing than the other (I play piano, Brian Potter does not), there were contributions from both of us across the musical and lyrical spectrum.

5 - I really like your own version of OTS, performed at Joe's Pub in 2008. Why did you choose to do the song in a slower, more soulful and understated manner than in the versions by The Original Caste, Coven, Cher, etc?

DL:  I feel like the song deserves to be heard in a more plaintive and intimate way.  The story is important if you can pick up on the nuances. Doing it more slowly and “naked” is a way for that to really come across.

6 - I won't ask you to pick a favorite version of OTS, but what was the most interesting/surprising version you've heard - or maybe one that's under appreciated?

DL:  Roseanne Barr’s ridiculous version made me roar with laughter.  The Original Caste’s version is still my favorite.

7 - A number of anti-war songs songs got radio play during the Vietnam War, many of which have faded into obscurity. Why do you think OTS has endured?

DL:  Because it’s fabulous???  Ha Ha…just kidding.  I think it has a lot to do with the fact that most of the fans were between 6-16 in 1970 (they are now 50-66) when they saw Billy Jack and heard the song for the first time.  It became and remains a major campfire song, spiritual hymn albeit a lite one, and a favorite of that generation of young people, particularly girls.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Get Funky, Sweat a Little Bit

TWIN CITIES FUNK & SOUL: Lost Grooves from Minneapolis/St. Paul 1964-1979

I recently stumbled across this amazing anthology from Minneapolis based record label Secret Stash, somehow having missed its release in 2012.  What caught my eye were the tracks from the Prophets of Peace, a band that was based in my south Minneapolis neighborhood.  They were older than me and my friends; when we were just learning how to play our drums and guitars and horns, I was always impressed and intimidated when I could jam with someone whose brother was in that band... or who had played with a Prophet.  But I hadn't thought about the band in years.

So this album was a true find.  Even better, its grooves (pun intended) contain a wealth of musical history that I didn't know about my hometown in the era BP (Before Prince).  The music is excellent and the packaging is even better.  Take a look at the fantastic "newspaper" that Secret Stash produced for TCF&S by clicking on the following:

This project was obviously a labor of love, given all the time and work that went into researching and writing the "newspaper," tracking down and clearing various recordings from 40-50 years ago, and putting the whole shebang out on vinyl and CD. The music itself is priceless, but overall music sales continue to shrink as more people prefer to simply stream content - and issuing an anthology of relatively obscure music is not a way to get rich.

1. All Day Long - The Valdons
2. Sock-A-Poo-Poo '69 (Part 1) - Maurice McKinnies & The Champions
3. Work Your Flapper (Part 1) - Jackie Harris & The Champions
4. She's A Whole Lot's A Woman - Mojo And His 'Chi 4'
5. Ridin' High - Dave Brady And The Stars
6. I Ain't Gonna Cheat on You No More - Wee Willie Walker
7. Save Me - Wanda Davis
8. Get Funky, Sweet a Little Bit - Jackie Harris & The Exciters
9. There Goes My Used to Be - Wee Willie Walker
10. Take Care - Wanda Davis
11. Sweet Smell Of Perfume - Maurice McKinnies & The Champions
12. Baby, Baby I Need You - Dave Brady And The Stars
13. Love Me, Leave Me - The Valdons
14. Dipstick - Willie and The Bumblebees
15. Rusty McDusty - Morris Wilson
16. Thieves In The Funkhouse - Band of Thieves
17. You Can Be - Prophets of Peace
18. Saxophone Disco - Morris Wilson
19. Honey From The Bee - Willie and The Bumblebees
20. The Maxx - Prophets of Peace
21. Get Up - The Lewis Connection

So I tip my hat to everyone involved in putting out this album.  The rest of Secret Stashes' catalog looks interesting and I'm eager to check it all out.  In the meantime, Secret Stash's Eric Foss, the man behind TCF&S, has some answer for my seven questions:

1 - What was the inspiration or catalyst for producing TCF&S - and did the concept evolve between the initial idea and the final product?  

Eric Foss: The idea started when we got hipped to a record by a band called the Lewis Connection (though it’s misspelled on the album jacket).  We met with the band leader and he gave me a copy of the record.  He wanted to a deal for the record, but part of what makes that record so collectible is also what makes it tough to deal with.  Prince plays guitar on a couple tracks.  It’s really what would sell the record.  But The Purple One is well-known around these parts for being one of the most litigious people you could ever come across.  

I think that is what honestly first started the conversation about a compilation.  Even still, it took us at least 6 months before we knew what the goal for a finished project was. 

The Lewis Connection - "Get Up"

2 - Were there any tracks you really wanted to use but were unable to find or couldn't clear the rights for, etc?  

EF: Yes, they will remain nameless at this point because A) we may end up licensing them for something else, and B) some of that left a few people feeling very disappointed.  

I remember one track in particular was a real letdown for us.  The guys in the band wanted a shit ton of money for the license.  I had to tell them we couldn't do it.  Then they called me like a day after we approved the test pressings and said they’d go with my original offer (which was like a tiny fraction of what they said they wanted).  It was a real bummer. 

3 - You had an album release party in September, 2012, featuring performances from a number of the musicians from TCF&S. What was that like? 

EF: Life-changing.  Basically that show was supposed to be a onetime thing, but I was getting non-stop offers to bring the show to different festivals and events around the Twin Cities.  The problem was, I knew it had a short shelf life.  A very short shelf life.  We (I say we because I wound up drumming for most of that stuff) weren't writing and recording new material, and frankly didn't have the ability to that well if we wanted.

I saw very serious excitement for what we were doing, but saw that within a year, no one would really care anymore.  How many times can you put on the same show in the same town?  

Anyhow, I say it was life-changing, because after identifying the limitations of what we were doing, I started a new band with one of the singers called Sonny Knight & The Lakers.  For years I swore I wouldn't work “new” records at Secret Stash.  But now here I am just weeks away from the debut of the first Sonny Knight & The Lakers LP. 

4 - Secret Stash released TCF&S on collectible vinyl and CD, but why is it not available to buy as a download?  

EF: A couple guys thought they could do digital themselves.  I wound up giving them some names and phone numbers of people who could help with that.  For something like this, to me it’s all or none.  I wasn't going to put the record on iTunes with a few tracks missing.  

5 - What about this project did you find most gratifying? 

EF: Getting know and play with the artists. 

Prophets of Peace - "You Can Be"

6 - What was the most challenging aspect of producing TCF&S? 

EF: Woof…. Clearing the rights and organizing the live events.  Also, I wound up laying out that newspaper that’s tucked inside the LP myself.  I had literally never used Indesign a day in my life when I decided to do that.  That shit sucked.  Will (GM at SSR) and I had about 7-10 days of very little sleep leading up the deadlines for print materials. 

7 - For anyone who loves this anthology, what would you recommend be the next album they listen to from the Secret Stash catalog? 

EF: Hands down, it’s the new Sonny Knight And The Lakers album.  This band got started by covering material off the TCFS comp.  It’s really where the roots of our sound lies.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Where has your father gone?

Vdova - The Nightingale Trio

The term "World Music" is so broad that it borders on silly.  Generally, anything that isn't English language pop or Western classical music can be and has been categorized as such.  Cuban jazz, Algerian rai, Polynesian drumming, Brazilian salsa, J-pop, klezmer, Celtic, Cajun... the list is endless.

Whether or not it makes sense to combine all these diverse and rich genres under one heading is debatable.  There's no denying, however, that expanding your musical horizons beyond the Top 40 opens up worlds of rhythm, melody, harmony and instrumentation you never even knew existed.

Nowadays it's easy to explore this cornucopia.  You can wander down a million musical rabbit holes online and listen to any type of song, any time, any where.

It hasn't alway been thus.  A generation ago, if you lived in an area that had a public radio station, you occasionally might have heard World Music.  Your library may have had a few records.  Or perhaps you'd read a review somewhere that opened your eyes and ears.

I don't recall how I came across the following album, which I bought on cassette...      

...but it was one of of the most strikingly distinct things I had ever heard.  While the acapella woman's voices had echoes of familiar religious music, the tone and (especially) the harmonies were strange. Strange and beautiful.  I loved it immediately.

"Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares" ("The Mystery of Bulgarian Voices") is a collection of folk songs by the Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir.  The album was released in the US in 1987 and three years later the group's second album won a Grammy.

Fast forward to this year, when I was deep in one of the musical rabbit holes I mentioned above.  I came across a video shot under frozen Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis.  That alone was enough to enticement me.

To my delight, the music was as wonderful as the setting.

It turns out the Nightingale Trio is a unique act, one inspired by the folk songs of the Balkans and Eastern Europe (such as "Le Mystere des Voix Bulgare").  While remaining true to the music's traditions, the trio also brings a unique approach to this type of singing.

Sarah Larsson, Nila Bala, and Rachel LaViola met at Yale as members of the Women's Slavic Chorus.  Now based in Minneapolis, San Jose, and Dallas, respectively, they continue to perform together.

You can learn more about the three of them and their music at nightingaletrio, and

I had the chance to ask Sarah and Nila about recording "Vdova."
1 -  As a teenager, I enjoyed exploring underneath/behind Minnehaha Falls, which may or may not have been permitted.  What was it like singing in this unique environment and why was it chosen?
Sarah Larsson: Why we chose that spot: We had already filmed another video with Trent Waterman from North Shore Sessions, and we loved his work.  We contacted him about filming another video, with our thought being, “Something haunting, beautiful, still—like winter.”  

His first suggestion was the Falls!  Since I live in Minneapolis, I had actually explored back there before, and knew it would be magical.  Actually, the first time I climbed back there, I was by myself, and I couldn’t help but sing.  The cavern makes a beautiful acoustic space.

2 - The trio includes a Minnesotan, a Texan and a Californian.  Did the cold winter air affect your voices, particularly for the two of you coming from warmer climes?
SLTotally!  You can’t tell in the video, but I was moments away from drooling almost the entire time.  Trent, the videographer, took off his gloves to do the filming, and we were completely impressed at his fortitude.  In the cave, the air was a little warmer than the air outside, but we still happened to be singing in Minnesota during the coldest weekend on record — the “polar vortex”, if you remember!

Nila Bala: Cold weather is definitely something we have to watch out for.  We like to keep warm water or tea close by, and cough drops to counteract the cold.  Since we didn't have to do too many takes for Vdova, our voices survived the adventure!
3 - "Vdova" is a sad song about a woman learning that her husband has been killed, his body scattered by ravens. Since most of your listeners are unlikely to understand Ukrainian, how much is your song choice dictated by "sounds amazing" and how much by "great lyrics"?
NBI think its hard to separate the "sounds amazing" from the "great lyrics," since the meaning of the song drives the sound and the way it is rendered.  It is important for us to know the meanings of the songs, so we can imbibe the songs with that feeling, even if our listeners may not understand Ukrainian. 

Sarah Larsson

SLMost of our first impressions about songs are based on the harmonies and aesthetics, sound-wise.  Pretty often, we find out about the meaning of a song in a general way at first, and don’t get literal translations until we are already performing the songs and meet a native speaker.  Other times, we learn the songs directly from a master-singer, who tells us all the song’s background right away.  

For this one, we knew it was a widow’s song from the start, and we hope that the sorrow in the song comes through just through the feeling in the tune.  

In any case, so so many of the songs are about the stark, real, often-desperate calling-out of women in the old country.  Other songs say, “Mother, oh please do not marry me off; I will forever miss my friends and my little garden.”  Somehow, we love these sorrowful stories, too.  Other songs, of course, are as joyful as can be.
4 - Do you sing this any differently than would a traditional group of Ukrainian women?
SLYes, our style is very different.  Traditional folk Ukrainian is a bit more brash, and “forward”, to use the language of vocal production.  It varies a lot region to region, but here is an example that is pretty typical of what we have heard:  

Our style is different, but we have grown into our style through being really focused on listening in to each other, and letting our harmonies ring.  

Ukraine is, admittedly, one of the nations whose music we know least about.  We’ve studied with master singers from Bulgaria, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, and Russia, but not yet Ukraine.  

Also, it’s interesting to note that we each have very different singing backgrounds.  Nila was trained in classical South Indian music, and also performed in touring Broadway shows as a child.  Rachel has no formal music training, but is also a phenomenal country and bluegrass singer.  I had most of my vocal training in a classical Western women’s choir, and I’ve also studied music of several West and East African traditions.  We all come together!

NBWe try our best to sing Slavic music as authentically as we can--meaning the pronunciation, the vocal placement, and the tone.  However, we are not fluent in the languages we sing in, nor is it the only type of music we enjoy, so you are likely to notice some differences. 

If you listen to traditional Ukrainian women's groups, you might find that they have an even louder, fuller, tone, with a heavier vibrato than we use.  However, even within Ukrainian voices you will likely notice differences, since every vocal group makes different stylistic choices.

Nila Bala
5 - The three of you live in different places, so singing together live is not always an option.  Do you ever rehearse a song like "Vdova" via Skype or other digital technology?
NBFor now, electronic rehearsals are not a good option given the feedback and delays that occur.  We tend to learn our parts very well on our own, and then come together before our tours to put our songs together.

SLWe have tried to use Google hangouts, but the problem is that the program mutes your microphone while anyone else is talking!  So no, that doesn’t work for us.  What we do instead is have our hangouts to plan tours and repertoire, and then we all go home and learn our parts on our own.  We convene for an afternoon before our gigs start for each tour and put everything together.  We’re constantly emailing back and forth with new music ideas.

Rachel LaViola
6 - The video was produced for the North Shore Sessions.  What are they and how did the Nightingale Trio get involved?
SL: North Shore Sessions is an awesome project based in Minnesota, that films local and touring bands playing in interesting spaces.  Most of the videos they film are taken in one single shot without cuts, so they have a great live feel.  

I learned about it because Trent Waterman filmed videos of several musician friends here in town (The Hummingbirds: and Lynn O’Brien:  Trent is also a good friend. 

There are a lot of amazing local artists in Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Trent does all of his filming just out of his own artistic passion for good music and for film.
7 - Did you nail this video on the first take?
SLWe did about 5 takes of this song, but I think this version is maybe the 3rd or 4th one.  It took us a moment to get into singing mode after climbing up an ice covered waterfall (!), and then we needed a bit of time to get the sound right. Fun detail: we recruited some strangers who were also exploring that day to guard the entrance to the cave, so no one would walk into the shot.  

Monday, March 10, 2014

I Want To Feel What You Feel

"Love Belongs Right Here" - Mary Hopkin

One of the first artists the Beatles signed when they launched Apple Records in 1968 was a young Welsh singer named Mary Hopkin.  

The first commercial single the label released, Apple #2, was Hopkin's "Those Were The Days."  Produced by Paul McCartney, the record became a huge international hit and made Hopkin a star. 

Hopkin's next single was a McCartney original, "Goodbye," a #2 hit in the UK and #13 in the U.S.  Prime Paul, its catchy melody is a perfect match for Hopkin's lilting vocals.

(Apple single #1, by the way, was a private pressing of Frank Sinatra (!) singing a revised "The Lady is a Tramp" for Ringo's wife, Maureen.)  


Credit: Morgan Visconti

Mary Hopkin has been involved in various music and theatrical projects in the years since, from the Blade Runner soundtrack to the theme song for a Billy Connolly TV series, working with myriad artists from David Bowie to Dolly Parton to the Chieftains. 

Credit: Morgan Visconit

Hopkin's children, Jessica Lee Morgan and Morgan Visconti, share her musical talents and she has collaborated with both.

My impression, right or wrong, is that she has never seemed commercially motivated, that she is driven instead by a love of singing. Hopkin doesn't do much press or perform publicly often, but she's no recluse - she tweets regularly (@themaryhopkin) and has a nice website (  And she continues to grace us with new recordings.

Her most recent album, "Painting by Numbers," concludes with a powerful yet intimate song, "Love Belongs Right Here." You can listen to it here and you can buy the album here.

 I sent Hopkin seven questions about LBRH.  She quite kindly responds:

1 - You wrote LBRH with your longtime guitarist Brian Willoughby for a solo album he released in 1998. What was that process like?

Mary Hopkin: Brian had already written a lovely 8-bar melody on guitar, which we used for the verses. Once we'd worked out the chords for the rest of the song, I wrote the remaining melody and lyrics.

2 - The only instruments on the track are two guitars, one electric and one acoustic. Is that Brian and/or you?

MH: I wish! Brian played all the guitar parts - beautifully. I just played the keyboard pad.

3 - On LBRH (as well as the rest of "Painting by Numbers") your voice is as beautiful and distinctive as it was when you signed with Apple records in 1968. What's your secret?

MH: Thank you - it must be neglect! I prefer my voice now, though - my range has improved and it seems to reflect more of what I'm feeling.

4 - Have you ever tried singing LBRH in Welsh?

MH: No, but there is a translation and it has been sung by the lovely Welsh singer, Heather Jones.

5 - Did you do anything special to get in the right mood to record the vocal for LBRH or do you just start singing and the emotion comes easily?

MH: What are you suggesting? Have you heard the lyrics? :-) No, no foreplay necessary - I'm a professional :-)

6 - Was it easy to keep the arrangement simple or were you ever tempted to add strings, bass, percussion, etc?

MH: Brian's whole album (Black and White) was beautifully understated - in fact, he didn't use the electric guitar part on his album version. A big arrangement would have affected the intimacy of the song - although we did think of pitching it to Celine Dion :-)

7 - Why did you decide to end the album with LBRH?

MH: I chose it as the last track because it's the only song that is not a demo, but a finished recording. I also like the way the slow fade leads the listener gently into silence.

I'll leave you with a video of "Gold and Silver," another fine song from the album:


Friday, December 20, 2013

We'll Have a Dance of Liberty

"Black and White" - Three Dog Night (Jimmy Greenspoon) 

In 1954, the Supreme Court declared racially segregated schools unconstitutional, inspiring a song titled "Black and White," music by singer Earl Robinson and lyrics by David Arkin (father of actor Alan Arkin).  17 years later, the band Greyhound reached #6 on the British pop charts with their version of the song.  An American band heard this single and recorded the song for its next album.

Who was the band?  Obviously, it was Three Dog Night, who took it to #1 in America in September of 1972.  

TDN is an underrated band and an unusual one.  It featured three lead singers, so perhaps this lack of a solitary front man like a Jagger or Cobain made it harder for fans to focus their attention (the Beatles, as usual, being the exception to this theory). But TDN had three #1 singles and 21 (!) Top 40 hits between 1969 and 1975.

On the one hand, despite a five year break in the late 70's, the band has been remarkably durable, continuing to play together with most of the original lineup.  On the other, they haven't released a new album since... 1976!

But the most likely reason they are not in the hip pantheon of rock groups is that they were unabashedly pop rock.  Many of their songs are perfect for singing along to in the car or at the arena.  They weren't dark and edgy and experimental.  They didn't write most of their hits.  But they were very capable musicians who had a fantastic knack for picking songs, many from writer/performers who went on to become successful in their own right.

One (Harry Nilsson) - is the loneliest number.
Mama Told Me Not To Come (Randy Newman)
Eli's Coming (Laura Nyro)
Never Been to Spain (Hoyt Axton)
Joy To The World (Axton) - "Jeremiah was a bullfrog," not the Xmas song.
An Old Fashioned Love Song (Paul Williams)
Sure As I'm Sitting Here (John Hiatt)
The Show Must Go On
And so on...

One of the band's original members, Keyboardist Jimmy Greenspoon, shared his memories and insight with me.  If you want more than the seven questions and answers below, he also wrote a book with a very long title: 

One Is the Loneliest Number: On the Road and Behind the Scenes With the Legendary Rock Band Three Dog Night

1 - I've read that TDN heard the UK reggae band Greyhound's recording of B&W and covered that version. But B&W was originally recorded in 1956 by Pete Seeger and then by Sammy Davis, Jr. in 1957. Were you familiar with either of those versions?

Jimmy Greenspoon: I wasn't aware of the other versions. I knew there were some out there as it was written some time ago. The Greyhound  version was what we used for a template.



2 - I assume that's you playing the famous piano intro?  How was it decided to start the record off that way?

JG: Yes, that's me. It was a running joke that I started 99% of the songs, so as on "JOY", "MAMA", "OLD FASHIONED" and others, the guys took a dinner break and left me to come up with something that was radio friendly. TA DA!

3 - Was there any negative reaction to the song from people who disagreed with its meaning or didn't think it should be commercialized, etc?

JG: None at all. In fact, some school teachers in the deep South used the song as a learning tool for the children.

4 - When you finished recording the song, did you think it was going to be a hit?

JG: Yes. At that point, our track record was extensive, so we knew we had a hit on our hands.

5 - How has the social context for the song changed, given that you and the band have been performing it for 40 years?

JG: The context of the song remains intact to this day. There's still people out there who don't want that equality, but you can't fix stupid. Most people at the shows just view it as a fun, sing along hit.

6 - What was the most memorable live performance of B&W?

JG: The one that never happened. We were scheduled to play South Africa at Sun City, but someone on the other side didn't do their homework. When they found out that Floyd was black (DUH) they cancelled the show. That would have been quite the learning experience.

Drummer Floyd Sneed and the rest of the band

7 - Who are the children singing towards the end of the record?

JG: The kids at the end were Cory's daughters (Cory Wells is one of TDN's lead vocalists), Floyd's daughters, my daughter and some of their school friends.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Musical Chemistry

"Breaking Bad" (TV series) - Dave Porter

As it builds to its highly anticipated finale, "Breaking Bad" is widely hailed as one of the finest television series of all time.  What elevates this drama is the excellence with which every element is crafted: the acting, writing, directing and cinematography are the most obvious examples.

But don't overlook Dave Porter's masterful work scoring each and every episode.

Great scores in film and television come in two flavors: those that call attention to themselves and those that you don't often notice. Both types are equally effective in the right hands and in the right context.  John Williams' classic score for Star Wars is something anyone can hum - its grandiosity and power match the scale of an intergalactic battle between good and evil.

Showy scores like Williams' tend to get the most attention. And people also notice music when it's bad - heavy handed or repetitive or incongruous. 

But music that people don't consciously notice, even while it ties together scenes and amplifies emotion, music that would be sorely missed if it disappeared? That is the work of a very talented individual.

Dave Porter's work on "Breaking Bad" falls in this category.  Not to say that you never notice his score, because you do.  But on the whole it directs attention not to itself but keeps it on the story, where it belongs.  It never takes you out of the moment. It never hits you over the head to tell you THIS IS SCARY or THIS IS FUNNY or THIS IS SAD.  It's subtly perfect.

Because the characters have evolved so much over five seasons, Porter is always coming up with new music.  He isn't just coming up with a handful of great themes to reuse and tweak, he's constantly creating a new soundscape.

His work here is also distinctive for its lack of standard orchestral instruments. Instead, he features electronic sounds and ethnic instruments, as well as acoustic guitar and found sounds that aren't created by a musical instrument. 

And in this day of short title sequences, Porter came up with that memorable dobro and percussion theme that punctuates every cold open and primes the viewer for an hour of gut wrenching suspense.

1 - What is your favorite score for a television series and how has it influenced your work on Breaking Bad?

Dave Porter: As a whole, I'm probably more influenced by film scores than those from television, although there have been a some important exceptions.  When I was 14 years old it would have been hard to drag me away from Miami Vice on a Friday night…  Michael Mann and Jan Hammer used music in a very aggressive and overt way that hadn't happened previously on TV.  Certainly Twin Peaks is another - the way that David Lynch has always melded music and sound design has been a big influence on my own work.

(Editor's note: Once, as an icebreaker, my colleagues and I had to name our favorite TV theme songs. I said "Twin Peaks" and none of my two dozen co-workers knew the song - and we worked at a television network! Here it is in all its beautiful and mysterious glory. A TV theme would never be allowed to run this long nowadays.)  

2 - Since, sadly but inevitably, BB is ending, what will you be working on next?

DP: I'm very excited about my next project, which will be a series for Fox entitled "Wayward Pines."  It is being produced by M. Night Shyamalan, who will also direct the first episode. Chad Hodge and Donald DeLine are also executive producers, and the cast they have lined up is fantastic: Matt Dillon, Terence Howard, Melissa Leo, Juliette Lewis, and more.  It is a thriller that is expected to air next summer.

3 - When a song is used in an episode of BB, such as Jim White's "Wordmule," is it added to the sound mix before, after or during your scoring, and do you ever consult with the music supervisor about what songs get used?

DP: All of the music, additional sound effects, dialogue fixes, etc., get mixed together in the final audio mix, which is generally the last step in the creative process of a film or television episode.  Most films and tv shows have a music supervisor in addition to a composer, and that person is responsible for the licensed music that is used.  In our case, that job is handled by Thomas Golubic and his staff, who do an amazing job.

I do coordinate with Thomas (and of course Vince Gilligan and other writers/producers) about where music should be used, and if we are going to use music in a particular scene whether it should be source or score.

If we decide source (aka licensed) music is the best option, then creatively that task falls to Thomas.  On a few occasions we've been unsure whether score or source would be the best option, and we've both worked on music for a scene, in which case Vince Gilligan would make the final decision.

4 - You've been very accessible to BB fans on Reddit and Facebook, etc.  Is using social media a must for a career in music or simply something you enjoy doing? 

DP: This is an interesting question, and one that I don't think I fully know the answer to yet.  I'm not sure that being available on social media is really anything that is likely to further my career… at least I don't see it that way.  But I guess you never know -- it certainly can't hurt to have people be aware of your work.  

For me, I started doing those things because I had an inside view on a unique television show that people were eager to talk about.  In the beginning, in particular,  it was fascinating to connect with fans who were early adopters and as passionate about the show as we were.  As the show grew in popularity I used these social networks as an interesting gauge of where we were during the crazy ascent of the show into the popular series it has become.  

As my career moves on beyond Breaking Bad it will be interesting for me to see what role social media plays.

5 - How did you select which tracks to include on the soundtrack album, given more than four season's worth of material, especially since your music for the series is not just a collection of themes and stings?

DP: Selecting cues to include on my score soundtrack CD was definitely tough.  My view is that as a film/tv composer my task first and foremost is to create music that supports the film or show.  I'm never thinking about what something is going to sound like on a soundtrack record when I'm writing it.  

But of course listening to a soundtrack record is a very different experience, with different requirements and expectations.  I really wanted listening to the score soundtrack to be a cohesive experience, but this meant, for example, that some of my favorite cues didn't make it simply because they felt too short and there wasn't time or budget to rerecord them.  

Overall it was a very rewarding experience, though, and I'm really pleased to have the score soundtrack available for those fans that are interested.

6 - What was the hardest episode to score?

DP: From a purely logistical standpoint, last summer's "Dead Freight" with the train heist sequence was the most demanding.  Previously, I think the longest cue I had written for the show was around 4 minutes long.  The train heist cue lasts almost the entirety of the final act, approximately 13 minutes.  For any composer working on an extended action sequence, it is a lot of work to keep the music varied and follow all the peaks and valleys across a long stretch of time.  

From an emotional standpoint, my "Jane's Demise" cue was probably the hardest.  That was not only a very difficult scene to have to watch hundreds of times, but a very complicated series of emotions and reactions that had to be accounted for musically without necessarily commenting on the scene from a moral standpoint.  That particular cue had many incarnations before arriving at exactly the right one. 

7 - Showrunner Vince Gilligan and editor Kelley Dixon are always quick to praise your work.  Will you be on any of their podcasts this season

DP: Our official podcasts, which Vince and Kelley put out for every episode, are an amazing source of insider info on the show.  I highly recommend them for fans of the show.  I always love attending them because without fail I'm also learning all kinds of new things that I never knew.  

I have been a part of a number of them, and I'm honestly not sure if I will be a part of any this final season… they tend to be a last minute thing.  I have, though, recorded DVD commentary on a few episodes already, which are always fun as well.