Photo by J.F. Vergal
The “Kaye” record is such a beautiful tribute to Kevin Ayers – can you tell me how it come about and about Ayers influence on you?
It’s funny. I’ve always been a fan of Kevin Ayers…various times in the last performing years of his life, he came over to the US and was doing these really small rooms, like believe it or not, the back of a vegetarian restaurant. I caught up with some of his music and bought the original import records that he had out, and he seemed like a person who never really needed anything but just kind of drifted through life. He was a very gifted individual who never really reached his potential because he didn’t need to – he had the gift of being really good looking and charming, charming to serve his own needs to a certain extent. He was somewhat self-destructive in a lot of ways, but his music never reflected that. It was always very beautiful, these English country tunes with a lovely melody. I didn’t consciously set out to make a tribute record, but something about how work was really inspiring. He had the Soft Machine in the early days which was really experimental, and I was going down a road where I had all these songs that just kind of lined up with his influence. I had heard about his passing – he had died about 2 years ago in Spain - and read an article about how he had been found in his room after three days alone, and sadly no one had bothered to look for him. The last words he had wrote, found on the bed next to him, were “you don’t shine if you don’t burn”. I dug into the words a little bit more and wrote the song called “Kaye” all about Kevin Ayers. That song really summarized how I felt about him – that he was sort of a cavalier in his life. All of a sudden, all of these sings I had written took on a different meaning and they felt like they could relate to his life, and at that point I thought I should cover a Kevin Ayers song. I had always wanted to do “After the Show”, so it all seemed to make sense and I saw meanings to all of the songs that I hadn’t seen before.
You pulled together some amazing musicians for the record, working with people like (Bongos guitarist) James Mastro who is a really thrilling player. Was it a matter of calling up folks and seeing who was interested or did you have certain musicians in mind?
Well, James had played on at least two of the albums I had worked on, and I have known him about 20 years. He’s such a good guy and a really inventive guitarist, always tasteful in what he plays. Without me initially telling him where we were going with the project, he had already come up with guitar parts and sounds that were very similar to what I was hearing in my head, so I just let him do what he does! (laughs) When we got further along and I gave more of that (backstory) away, he really didn’t need any coaching at all. The producer on the album, Don Piper, I had played him some Kevin Ayers songs and told him that I wanted a similar vibe without copying it – I wanted it to still be me, but I wanted him to be aware of that kind of flow of music in the overall performance of the players. They were all really, really good players, and they understood the simplicity sometimes that’s necessary to make the songs stand out, but at the same time every song has a really great feel to it.
Oh yeah, the arrangements are all really solid and the playing is nicely understated, servicing the song without really calling attention to itsel, servicing the song without really calling attention to itself.
Yeah, there wasn’t one track that took more than three takes, and so much of it was recorded live off the floor. I mean, we would go back here and there and fix a bum bass note or keyboard part that we wanted to fix, but we basically recorded the entire album in 4 days. There’s one song on there called “Peter Pan’s Dream” which we had no rehearsals for. I had a basic structure in mind, but we just jammed out a 28-minute version of the song, which we then edited down to 8 minutes.
Wow…will the original jam ever see the light of day?
You know what, I listened to it the other day and am thinking about just putting it up on Soundcloud or something. For those who are crazy enough to sit through 28 minutes, here ya go, mates! (laughs)
I would love to hear that. That seems really in tune with Kevin Ayers’ spirit, though…you work on the song for as long as it takes to find the heart of it, and it may take you 28 minutes to get there.
Yeah, it was cool because everyone stayed on tracked and was so focused. We moved in to several different kinds of music – there was some jazz going on, some Coltrane, a little bit of everybody hanging on by their coattails. Even the 8-minute version has that spirit, I think. You can sense some of the early Soft Machine days in that. When “Kaye” came along and we were working on the record, I never realized how well these songs held together.
Aside from Ayers, what other influences do you bring to your writing? How does your songwriting work?
I always start by trying to put down the lyrics first, but if a melody comes along I will try to put it against the words and see if they fit. In the early days I would never do this, but now I’ll write the lyrics and have a melody in my head and if it’s still there in a couple of days I will tighten up the words and tighten up the melody and I know we’re heading somewhere with the song. The great thing is with the advent of Garageband and things like that you can put down a melody really easily with any instrument you want – one part may be a cello and the next part a recorder – and it makes it really easy to get the song flowing. Having the ability to have all of those instruments in front of me really expands the palette a lot.
Do you find yourself tapping into your English heritage at all?
Yeah. Two albums back, “Sparkle Lane”, was all about what it was like coming to America – good and bad. My roots are that I was born in Birmingham and I left at a time when England was in a musical explosion, so coming here was really strange at the time. It was kind of like, the world is happening in London and we are going to New York? (laughs) Songwriters like Ray Davies and people like that are obviously still in my musical DNA.
Your band was named by Colin Blunstone and you recently did some dates with him, so I can see where that influence would be seen in your songwriting.
He’s a really inspirational person, one of the most genuine men. He is amazing, because when you think of his abilities to sing and to motivate, he’s always got motivational words for you while you sit there in awe of him. He has been a great support to me. And he used to work with a gentleman by the name of Duncan Browne, who is another musician I adore. Basically, a couple of the acoustic tracks, we had Pete Kennedy playing with us and we were definitely going after a Duncan Browne type of sound.
Awesome! So what’s on the horizon for you after the record comes out (July 8th)?
I’ve been writing for the past six or eight months, and I have the luxury of having about 30 songs in an English country-folk vein. I have also been writing with another fellow, J.F. Vergel, in a much more challenging way – he’s been pushing me to sing a different style. So, there are a couple of projects going on right now that I’m looking at. Yesterday, I had my first session with Don Piper, and I told him to listen to these eleven songs I wrote with J.F. and tell me which direction I should be going. There’s no lack of ideas at this point, it’s just a matter of finding the right direction to move in and start recording again.