Friday, July 31, 2015

WALTER STEDING: Sound Style Change [1983 interview/article]

Text by Julia Masi / FFanzeen, 1983
Intro by Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2015
Images from the Internet

This article was originally published in FFanzeen, issue #10, dated 1983. It was written by Julia Masi.

Currently, Walter Steding is a painter and actor who writes film scores and is in the group Crazy Mary, based in New York City where he resides. – RBF, 2015

On the cover of his new album, Dancing in Heaven, on Animal Records, Walter Steding, in an oversized pair of rolled-up bluejeans with his violin in hand, is suspended in an extracted hop, like the Pied Piper ready to dance off a cliff, or Peter Pan flying back to Never Never Land. A confusing change of image for those of us who think of him as the black-clad figure of the concert stage.

Dancing in Heaven is light-years away from the Walter we once knew “wheezing and wailing” to home-made bio feedback machines. He’s still inviting us to experience his different reveries, but now with 11 simple, lighthearted, commercial songs, his daydreams have become danceable.

“To me, the cover would have been this hat,” he points to his large, black felt fedora that looks like it was designed for a Pilgrim, “the darkest glasses you could find, and just skulls and daggers all over the place. He holds up the cover for careful inspection. “At first I didn’t like it; but now I do, now that everybody is telling me that they like it. The back is the history,” he flips over the cover. ”I never have to talk about my past again. It’s done. It’s documented,” he says of the black and white montage that traces his career. Although he’s only been performing since he came to new York in 1976, the photos on the back of the album read like a Who’s Who of rock‘n’roll. He points to the center picture of himself and his manager, artist Andy Warhol. “Andy was posing, and I said to him, ‘Well, we have to do something. Why don’t you put your hands by your ears?’ Did he go for that in a hurry! It looks derogatory, like, ‘Why is he doing that to Walter?’, but it was my idea. He rests to skip over the pictures of himself in his early days as a one-man-band, wearing electronic gadgets around his waist that looked like Batman’s utility belt, but his past is too interesting to ignore. Even as a kid growing up in Harmony, Pennsylvania, his background was always art. “Remember the kid in high school who always went around and painted the twelve days of Christmas on his windows? Well, that was me.” He temporarily put down his paint brushes in the late ‘70s to try his hand at performance art. “Just ‘cause I saw something happening.

“It was an era when new technologies were being introduced to the masses, and it was a time when bio-feedback and Rolfing, and any kind of New Age idea was really out there. But I just didn’t see any aesthetic in it. I saw that the more that we define existence by finite terms, the less we really see it. You can use any kind of formula you want to start defining existence, but all you’re doing is making it real; making it physical. Unless you put those physical symbols in some sort of aesthetic means, you’re not really describing what’s there.”

At this time, Walter had been working with the Mankind Research Center in Washington, D.C., and was in close contact with the Menninger Foundation, so he knew a lot about bio-feedback. “As people were going on and really thinking they were discovering something new, it just was the phoniness, the unreality of it. It was new at the time as far as the masses were concerned. I was using it as a means of expression. So instead of working with bio-feedback as though it were something real and tangible, I needed something to play against, so I took the bio-feedback and made it into sound, and then used the violin on top of that.

“Working with color and working with animal sounds, I learned a lot about how the sound would affect your brainwave output. Not only brainwaves, but EKG, too. And Galvanic skin response. Any kind of monitored bodily functions. I took a generator to a lake in Pennsylvania where these spring peepers were coming up, and played a concert along with them. That’s another reason why the violin was a good instrument, because it didn’t have frets or finite points. So I could really deal with sounds and sound like the noises that animals make; wolves and whales. You’ve head those whale records and things? So I was playing along with those, but I knew what kind of range those kinds of sound existed in. They’re all over the place. They’re not necessarily concerned with stops and finite points. But it does develop into patterns from that.

“And then, from that, I kind of go into – holistic is the word – where you don’t have the stops. I could transfer that into music because I knew a certain pattern that I’d be playing that would follow along with the noises that the whales would make. And then I knew instead of sliding my finger and going from one step to the other step, I could break that into steps, so I could play a song very similar to the noises a whale would make without actually trying to make it sound like a whale.

“You have different reveries in your different states of consciousness. Like, if you go into the deep Delta region, in this Delta it reverts to neuronal bursts per second. It’s actually (that) you send out these signals, and they can really be monitored. You’re sort of in-between Alpha and Beta, and you’re conscience and think about things, like your motor actions, like moving your hands. That is more in the Alpha region, and those (signals) are amplified. It’s a real minute signal. I built little amplifiers so that I could convert the signals into sound. I did that by taking the electrical impulse and putting it through an LED. The LED would charge a photo-transistor, and that photo-transistor would change the rate and the pitch of the synthesizer.

“I used a homemade synthesizer just built for that.” He learned to make his musical equipment from scratch, “just by reading schematics and things.” And by “working with chips,” he says nonchalantly.

“The tools and things are out there. You can go to an electronics store and just buy all these parts. You could buy a clock – it’s called a clock (but) it’s not really a clock; it’s a little chip, a timer. And they use it for everything. Not necessarily for music. Once you understand the basic principles of how a chip works, you can apply it to anything.” Walter chose to apply it to the violin because he felt that the “violin epitomizes music.”

His first concerts were very short and very avant-garde. “I thought it was art! I mean, I was doing it at art galleries.” And even though he describes those performances as “wheezing and wailing,” he did gain a certain respect for music, and command of his instrument. “That’s how I started getting more and more musical, learning about notation; different stops and points, with Western scales broken down into all those finite points. The more I learned about that, the more I learned how I could use it.

“I’m definitely trying to create a mood with the notation. Certain things do create a mood. The sounds that whales make do have an effect on the human body, even though it might not be aware of how that sound is. Even without hearing whales, a person is still affected by their sound. There is communication between all living things.

“I use the 4/4 beat. With the 4/4 beat, I try to find a more universal kind of sound, even though it’s relative to the 4/4 timing. It’s kind of scaleless.

“I like to think of the violin without any frets, and how it can transform that mood into a sound. And then I like to transfer that into a progression. A real progression in the 4/4 format, starting with the root note, and then going to the 4th and 5th – you know, real traditional progressions. So it comes from a thought and I just keep working it out until it becomes a tune.

“Right now, today, I got this line that goes,” he sings, “Do, do, do, cha, cha. I’ll take that line and I know how I want it to go, but I know that I have to put it in a format where the bass can play along with it and the keyboard player can play along with it. So, I’ll take the rhythm machine and set it to a counter, where it counts off 4s. Then I’ll rearrange the idea that I had in my head to fit that format. Then I’ll arrange it so that the bass can play his full measures, do a turnaround, and come back in again. So it starts with just an abstract idea, but then you keep going over it and over it, until it becomes a song.

“The songs I write anyone can play. I keep them simple. And I can make tapes where everything is separated. I don’t even have to rehearse. I can give someone a tape of what it’s supposed to sound like, and give them a tape of what their part is so they can listen to these tapes and learn the part exactly. And never come to a rehearsal and (still) play with the rest of the group. And then show up for a concert and know all their lines. Like the bass player. I’ll give him a tape of the song, how it should sound with everyone together, and then a separate tape of just his part. And the same with the keyboard player and guitar. So there is no question then of what they should do.”

Lenny Ferraro, drums; Paul Dugan, bass; Karen Geniece, vocals and guitar; Mark Garvin, lead guitar; and Robert Arron, sax, keyboard, vibratone and guitar, accompanied Walter on the album, which he produced himself. “I wanted help. Really. I would have liked to have a producer,” he says modestly as his big dark eyes widen. “At the time, Chris (Stein, of Blondie) wasn’t feeling very well. I learned; I’m glad for the experience. I learned ‘cause I had to. I really would have liked to have someone professional come in and say, ‘This and that has to be done.’ It’s just like, there are rules that you have to follow. The bass beat is on the one, and the snare is on the two. Until I learned that, I didn’t write songs that way. I put the snare wherever I felt like it. Someone could always tell something was wrong with it. I could tell something was wrong, but I didn’t know what. So it would be good to have a producer who could say, ‘Why don’t we write a harmonic part that goes with the 4?’

“I don’t want to do something deliberately wrong when I know it shouldn’t be that way, just because it’s been done by so many other pioneers of electronic music and avant-garde musicians, like Cage and Stockhausen; people who have designed instruments, like Bookla and Moog, and all. That’s been done before.”

Right now, he can’t see himself returning to the avant-garde, using music as an art form. “It doesn’t make much sense for me to stay at one level and just deal with the emotion.

“The last concert I did, people liked it. I’ll keep going in that direction.”



Wednesday, July 15, 2015

THE TURTLES: Music’s Pride & Joy (Etc.) [1988]

Text by Dawn Eden / FFanzeen, 1988
Introduction © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2015
Images from the Internet

This interview / article was originally published in FFanzeen, issue #15, dated 1988. It was written by Dawn Eden.

The only time I ever had the opportunity to see a version of the Turtles was when lead singers Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman had their bookended Flo and Eddie stint, opening for Alice Cooper’s Billion Dollar Babies tour at Madison Square Garden during June of 1973. Eventually, they returned to the Turtles name, after their Greatest Hits CD helped make Rhino Records a solvent company. Also, a good friend of mine interviewed Kaylan at some point, and when asked why the name return, he was quite open, stating how much they earned as Flo and Eddie compared to payments for the Turtles.

One of the more interesting aspects of this article is that it is usually Kaylan who does the interviewing, but here, Dawn manages to strike up a convo with the wild-haired Volman.

On that note, Kaylan recently released an absorbing autobiography, co-written with music historian/mensch Jeff Tamarkin, titled Shell Shocked: My Life with the Turtles, Flo & Eddie, and Frank Zappa, etc. [reviewed HERE]. – RBF, 2015

In today’s incestuous Top-40 world, musicians switch from one band to another faster than you can say Sammy Hagar. It’s rare for a band to stay around for 10 years, let alone 25 years. And the number of successful bands whose members have played together since high school can be counted on the gaps between David Bowie’s teeth. Which makes it all the more unusual to look at Flo and Eddie, the nucleus of the Turtles.

FFanzeen caught up with Mark “Flo” Volman in his suite at Atlantic City’s Trump Plaza the day after he and partner Howard “Eddie” Kaylan played there.

Volman and Kaylan met in their Westchester, California, high school’s a capella choir. In 1962, Volman joined Kaylan’s surf band, the Crossfires, who became one of Redondo Beach’s most popular groups. The Crossfires were the house band at the Rebelaire Club when they were discovered by White Whale Records in 1965. After changing their name to the Turtles, they recorded a cover of Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe,” and almost instantly found themselves elevated to the ranks of rock and roll royalty.

Volman reflects fondly upon the Turtles’ early, innocent years: “When you think [about] what happened to us, and how few bands that happens to in history – how you start as a high school band and years later, find your songs making it into the Top-10 and competing against the biggest in America – you don’t really consider that plausible. That is a dream. When you’re in high school, your main thing is to get out of high school. I mean, for me it was to get out of science class.”

Recently, “Happy Together,” the Turtles’ 1967 No. 1 hit and biggest seller, was being revived in a number of forms. It was used as the theme song of the film Making Mr. Right, and a video of the song mixing scenes from the movie with live Turtles footage was added to the VH-1 cable station’s playlist. The single was also reissued by Rhino Records, the label that reissued the Turtles’ entire catalog of albums.

Oddly enough, “Happy Together,” which is still Our Song to millions of love-struck couples, is really about unrequited love. According to Volman, “A lot of people overlook one very important part of the song. Even as we made the record, we may not have been concerned with its actual philosophy… It starts out, ‘Imagine me and you…’ If you say one thing [about] that record, all we’ve immediately done, to anybody who’s really listening, is paint a picture that this is all a fantasy. It’s all make-believe. It’s the story of a boy who’s fantasizing over a girl who he doesn’t have. ‘Imagine me and you…’” Volman repeated. “There is no relationship. They are not ‘together,’ but, ‘I can’t see me loving nobody but you.’ Lyrically, this record never pays off. The boy never gets what he wants.”

After the Turtles broke up in 1970, Volman and Kaylan performed and recorded with Frank Zappa’s infamous Mothers of Invention. During the same period, they released several solo albums. Because legal hassles prevented them from recording under the Turtles’ name at the time, they took on the nicknames of their former roadies: Flo (short for “The Phlorescent Leech”) and Eddie [The Best of Flo and Eddie, on Rhino Records, is an excellent introduction to their solo career – DE, 1988]. They also embarked upon a second career, that of singing back-up on other artists’ albums. Volman and Kaylan backed up just about every major artist, from John Lennon to Bruce Springsteen.

Ronnie, Bruce, Howard and Mark
Volman says that he and Kaylan met Springsteen by a fluke. They were friends with his road manager, who invited them to attend a Cleveland concert on the Born to Run Tour. Volman picks it up from there: “While we were at the soundcheck, Bruce called me and Howard out of the audience and asked if we wanted to join him, singing [back-up] with Ronnie Spector. I was real surprised he even knew who we were. We rehearsed right there at the soundcheck, and we ended up singing with him and Ronnie in that night’s show! It was real fun.” Volman and Kaylan later did several more shows with Springsteen, and even sang on The River [1980].

In light of the recent commercial that uses “Happy Together” to hawk Golden Grahams, Flo and Eddie have truly come full circle. More than a decade ago, on one of their classic albums, they performed a sketch about a practice that was almost unheard of then. Volman recalls: “What Howard and I were raving about was taking rock and roll and using it as a commercial product. We were saying, ‘What if you took Fleetwood Mac’s big hit and used it to advertise McDonald’s Big Mac?’ It was [meant as] comedy. You go back and listen to it and it’s not dated at all. It’s me and Howard singing to ‘Rhiannon’: ‘You deserve a break today, so come to McDonald’s.’”


Friday, July 10, 2015

DVD Review: JJ Grey and MOFRO – Better Days: The Live Concert Film

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2015
Images from the Internet

JJ Grey and MOFRO – Better Days: The Live Concert Film
Directed by Spookie Daly
Alligator Records / Thunderbolt Productions /
Madison House / Flying Pig Studio / MVD Visual

119 minutes, 2011 / 2013

Up North, JJ Grey and MOFRO are not as well-known as some of their other Southern brethren that walk the path of rock, blues and country. Part of this concert documentary is musicians, including members of the band, describing MOFRO’s sound and everyone has a different slant to it. So, what the hell, here is mine.

I definitely would not call it Southern Rock. I can see them as more Skynyrd than the Allmans, with some of Jim Dandy’s growling Blues and less tight pants, but not as much rock. Swamp rock is a good descriptor, but more if it had more classic R&B and Gospel. And for good measure, as one member of the band says, add a bit of “J[immy] Reed.”

The reason why all these are accurate, is because they refuse to stay on any one highway line, but move from lane to lane, keeping it interesting. For example, “DirtFloorCracker” is solid Southern Rock, even though, as I said, I would not classify them as such. Another, the title cut “Brighter Days” sounds to me like something out of the John Mellencamp – er – camp.

This documentary is a cross between a concert and talking heads. The live music part, which is a complete concert, was taped at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta, GA, on January 22, 2011. It’s not too far up the swamp from where JJ grew up near Jacksonville, F-L-A (same town as Tom Petty, who followed a very different musical path). You can hear it in JJ’s voice, as he says the lyrics with a deep drawl, “Ain’t but one thing dat’s foww showw / Ev’rybhudy wants sommoww.”

Before each song, there is an interview part, mostly with the tall, lanky and graying Grey, which beautifully sets up the meaning and tone for the song to come. All the music is shown completely, thankfully, though the one where he introduces the band seems to go on a bit.

The MOFRO’s behind JJ are phenomenal musicians, especially Dennis Marion’s trumpet and Andrew Trube’s lead guitar. The whole band gets more than one solo throughout, and each one shines without trying to top the rest. It isn’t a contest, it’s an expression of talent.

I wasn’t familiar with MOFRO’s output before, but I may keep my ears perked up if they come my way to play. The closest I knew was Bodeco (who I have seen live, and they killed), and the Formerly Brothers (Amos Garrett – Doug Sahm – Gene Taylor), which by coincidence was what I was listening to the day before playing this DVD, but it’s nice to add to the repertoire.

If I had any complaints about the documentary, they are small and petty. For example, I would have liked to have had the song titles come up as they started, and as with most of these kinds of films, the talking head interviews are identified once, and then you just have to remember who they are, which makes it harder if they are (a) less known and (b) there are many involved. As I said, petty.

If you are into this kind of sound, I recommend this highly. If you’re bored by Southern Rock as it stands and prefer a more raw sound that has a bit more country and R&B to it than the rock, check ‘em out. This film can easily hold you until then.

JJ Grey: vox / harmonica / rhythm guitar /tambourine
Andrew Trube: lead guitar
Anthony Cole: drums
Dennis Marion: trumpet
Art Edmaiston: sax
Anthony Farrell: keyboards
Todd Smallie: bass