Keith Levene: 1957-2022

Keith Levene in studio

Saturday, I received the word from my friend and frequent commenter chasinvictoria that Keith Levene had died from liver cancer. When I think of the three guitarists from the Post-Punk era who helped to define the new concepts that would drive the development of guitar playing for the next few years, three immediately come to mind. Robin Simon of Ultravox, John McGeoch of Magazine, and Keith Levene of Public Image Limited. All three of them were instrumental in removing the guitar from its roots in Folk or Blues music into more abstract, textural areas suitable for the complexity of modern life. Where little is in black and white.

Levene’s imprint was down to a tight trilogy of released albums yet the music itself could not have sprawled more wildly outside the boundaries of Punk rigor. How he came to that point was a storied tale. Levene had been besotted at an early age with Prog Rock and he actually worked as a roadie for Yes as a thirteen year old. Yet three years later, he was the guitarist for Sid Vicious’ infamous proto-Punk collective The Flowers Of Romance. From there, he became an instigator of The Clash and was personally responsible for getting Joe Strummer to leave the 101ers and to join them instead.

But by the time The Clash started to move up in the world, he was already gone from that band. Levene was uninterested in the increasingly political thrust of their music due to the machinations of Bernie Rhodes. When The Sex Pistols imploded, Lydon moved on and remembered Levene from The Clash and he became the core of Public Image Limited, v. 1, with John Lydon, Jah Wobble, and Jim Walker.

Magazine released their debut album six months ahead of PiL, but Lydon was the other former Punk lead vocalist making bold forward moves in defining the way out of the Punk cul-de-sac. PiL’s debut single was thrilling in that it managed to be both atonal and anthemic in one fell swoop. The rhythm section invoked both Dub and Rock but the open chords favored by Levene would prove to be highly influential in the developing Post-Punk [as it would be called] scene. But that first single was deceptively conventional next to what would soon follow.

As the opening “Theme” made abundantly clear on PiL’s “First Issue” album. The dirge-like track was defined by shards of Levene’s heavily flanged guitar attacking the listener with its metallic scorn for a full nine minutes. The relentless feedback only began to falter at the 8:30 mark. Elsewhere, “Annalisa” and “Low Life” approached Punk tempos and urgency. Then the closing “Fodderstopmf” broke free to contain virtually no guitar but acted as an outlier to the band’s future.

The following “Metal Box”/”Second Edition” sought to introduce the influence of Krautrock into the band’s Dub aesthetic. Guitar was still in evidence, but the sound was expanding to encompass synthesizers [as introduced on “Fodderstompf”] and the band’s third album, “Flowers Of Romance,” had virtually nothing but vocals, Levene’s increasingly spidery synths and lots of drums. Jah Wobble had left the band after “Metal Box” and Levene would follow suit after “Flowers Of Romance.” He had been involved with the pre-production for the fourth PiL album, but famously pulled out of the band and as Lydon roped in other musicians and started fresh, Levene issued his tapes as the bootleg “Commercial Zone.”

Rykodisc | US | CD | 1989 | RCD 10049

Levene was silent for the six years after he left PiL and he re-emerged in 1989 with the “Violent Opposition” album. I recall seeing a video played on 120 Minutes for the cover of “If Six Was Nine” but that’s all that I had heard from this project. Levene never was ubiquitous following his stint in PiL. He contributed to Adrian Sherwood’s Dub project New Age Steppers, and he played with former band mate Martyn Atkins in his Pigface project with the “Easy Listening” album of 2003. In recent years he would team up with Jah Wobble and they recorded several projects together, as well as re-casting “Metal Box In Dub” as a tour they undertook in 2012.

My representation of him in the Record Cell is very concise, but the first three PiL albums were bold statements of musicians willing to explore any new territory, no matter how difficult the path might become. Levene sought to rip the guitar from the book of hidebound cliché it had become encumbered with for too long. Using the flames of Punk to renew and reclaim the instrument for excursions into unknown territories. And can we ask for more of that from our musicians? Condolences to his wife and family for their loss at this time.


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The Next Group Of Oingo Boingo Deluxe Remasters Is Nearing Takeoff

Coming next week from the remastering labs at Rubellan Remasters

Last summer ace reissue label Rubellan Remasters graced us with four Oingo Boingo remastered CDs [“Only A Lad,” “Nothing To Fear,” “Good For Your Soul,” “Dead Man’s Paarty”] and since then, the So-cal New Wave band has been blowing the doors off at Rubellan HQ. Though I’m on a curtailed budget, I managed to snag copies of “Only A Lad” and “Dead Man’s Party” before the first pressing sold out quickly. [they have since been repressed] In the interim, Rubellan have also produced multiple colored vinyl LP pressings of that material in more colors/pressings than I can truly follow. What was it that The Kinks said…”give the people what they want?” Now the next batch of Boingo albums is currently in preorder for the full set, with the individual copies available on the sale date of November 18, 2022. Let’s observe.

Rubellan Remasters | US | DLX RM | 2022 | RUBY36CD

Danny Elfman: So-Lo DLX RM – US – CD [2022]

  1. Gratitude
  2. Cool City
  3. Go Away
  4. Sucker For Mystery
  5. It Only Makes Me Laugh
  6. The Last Time
  7. Tough As Nails
  8. Lightning
  9. Everybody Needs
  10. Gratitude (Original Version)
  11. Gratitude (Extended Dance Version)
  12. Gratitude (Single Version)
  13. Gratitude (Tornado Version)
  14. Gratitude (Short Version)

The “Danny Elfman” “So-Lo” album was only a solo album in name only. It’s fully a Boingo album. The band had moved from I.R.S./A+M to MCA and they tried the re-branding to see if not having such a weird name would make a difference to the charts. Not really. This is a great album, but the bonus materials here were down to five different mixes of the single “Gratitude,” but we have to admire the thoroughness of Rubellan Remasters for still going there anyway!

Rubellan Remasters | US | DLX RM | 2022 | RUBY37CD

Oingo Boingo: Boi-Ngo DLX RM – US – CD [2022]

  1. Home Again
  2. Where Do All My Friends Go
  3. Elevator Man
  4. New Generation
  5. We Close Our Eyes
  6. Not My Slave
  7. My Life
  8. Outrageous
  9. Pain
  10. Mama
  11. Pain (Extended Dance Mix)
  12. Not My Slave (Extended Remix)
  13. Weird Science (Boingo Dance Version)
  14. Pain (A Cappella Version)
  15. Not My Slave (Club Dub Mix)

The “Boi-Ngo” album was one on release in 1987, that I had but eventually let go. I was good through the 1984 period at the time [encompassing “Only A Lad,” “Nothing To Fear,” “Good For Your Soul,” and “So-Lo”] but I’ve since finally gotten 1985’s “Dead Man’s Party” from RR and liked it a lot. And the CD is salted with a the song “Mama” which was only in the boxed set of 5×7″ singles of the album, and five remixes for maximum damage.

Rubellan Remasters | US | DLX RM | 2022 | RUBY38CD

Oingo Boingo: Dark At The End Of The Tunnel DLX RM – US – CD [2022]

  1. When The Lights Go Out
  2. Skin
  3. Out Of Control
  4. Glory Be
  5. Long Breakdown
  6. Flesh ‘N Blood
  7. Run Away (The Escape Song)
  8. Dream Somehow
  9. Is This
  10. Right To Know
  11. Try To Believe
  12. Out Of Control (Funky Vocal Mix)
  13. Flesh ‘N Blood (Extended Version)
  14. Try To Believe (‘Midnight Run’ Soundtrack Version)
  15. Out Of Control (Power Mix)

Meanwhile, the “Dark At The End Of The Tunnel” album from 1990 was a bridge too far for me to cross. All of the goofy, twitchy energy that I enjoyed from Oingo Boingo had been utterly drained from the band. A friend gave me a CD of this and it had to go. Immediately. Your mileage may vary. As ever, four remixes round out the release. And beyond the fifteen bonus tracks this run sports, we should also mention that the kind-to-your-ears mastering quality of Rubellan Remasters is ultimately a great reason to upgrade, even if you already own copies of any of these.

Each of these discs will be $15.99 but right now the bundle of all three can be pre-ordered for three dollars less at $44.97, so act now…operators are standing by!

post-punk monk buy button

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Andy Taylor Missed the Duran Duran Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony For The Worst Possible Reason

Andy Taylor of Duran Duran

Last Saturday night was supposed to be a victory lap for the band Duran Duran. After all, the historical antipathy of Rolling Stone to their music was pretty well known, and when they were nominated and were voted in, I was a more than a little surprised. After all, the failures and peccadilloes of the RRHOF is something that we can all argue about over for hours when the topic comes up. Obviously, the time was deemed right, and the necessary votes happened for the Fab Five to join their heroes David Bowie and Roxy Music in the hallowed Hall.

What always intrigues me was in seeing which members of the various lineups got the official induction invitation. I was pleased to see that both original guitarist Andy Taylor, who helped to launch the band, as well as Warren Cuccurullo, who replaced him and helped to keep the band hitbound and relevant after the departure of Taylor, were rightly included for induction.

There was speculation as to which guitarist [neither of them are in the current lineup] would possibly be included in the show, but no one could have predicted that neither would be there, nor the heartbreaking reason why Andy Taylor in particular could not attend. Until the moment that Simon LeBon stepped up to the dais to read Andy Taylor’s letter revealing that he has stage four prostate cancer, and that an unexpected setback precluded his ability to travel for the show.

wild boys andy taylor

Taylor was probably the weird element X that proved instrumental in giving the band of would-be dandies and aesthetes the tether to Rock Music that was necessary for them to catalyze their oft-mentioned brief to unite the disparate vibes of Chic and the Sex Pistols within the same band. The interplay between Taylor and band founder Nick Rhodes was undoubtedly fraught with conflict, but for the first four years the push and pull of the crunchy Rock riffs that Taylor added to the mix meant that songs like “Planet Earth” and “Careless Memory” rose above the attempts of the band to step into JAPAN’s shoes elsewhere on that album. And it formed the essence of their individuality.

In 1984, when Duran Duran split into two factions at the height of their fame, I can’t recall any other time that a mega-popular band had done this. We had the delicate and obscure Arcadia album on one hand, and the brash and rocking group The Power Station on the other one! Andy Taylor found bass player John Taylor willing to join him in forming a quick and dirty band with favorite singer Robert Palmer and Chic drummer Tony Thompson. The Power Station showed that near-metal riffs and gated drums could form an aesthetic unto itself and the resulting success gave Robert Palmer a second wind in his career that was larger than his first in America!

The band had famously toured in 1986 without Robert Palmer, who was busy with his next solo album, so they got Michael DesBarres of Silverhead to front as lead singer. I actually had tickets for their Tampa appearance as my friend Jayne was an even bigger Spandau Ballet fan than I was, and they were opening for the tour. But Steve Norman broke his leg and that ended that. We skipped trucking to Tampa to see a Palmer-free Power Station, but there was a single time I ever saw Andy Taylor play live and it was with The Power Station in 1997 on their tour for the second album they would record, “Living In Fear.” It was a hot show with tunes from both Power Station albums as well as a few Robert Palmer hits added to the mix, and that time it was John Taylor who was the odd man out. Fortunately, it was also the single time I’ve seen the talented Guy Pratt play bass live, so there was that.

The Power Station…one of these things is not like the other…

After first forming The Power Station, Taylor decided to bow out of the “Notorious” sessions midway and he left Duran Duran in 1986 until that fateful point in 2004 when the original band reunited for the “Astronaut” album. There was a big tour behind that album, but the sessions for the proposed follow up album, “Reportage” were notoriously [no pun intended] fractious and led to Taylor once again leaving the band with the resulting tapes locked away. Afterward, Duran Duran had to start from scratch on a follow up and made the incredibly divisive “Red Carpet Massacre” album in response.

Since his second departure from Duran Duran, I’ve not kept up with his dealings, but with the induction ceremony happening last week, I had looked forward to the possibility that Andy would be included, as the founding member ideally should in such events. But Rock politics can be exceedingly ugly and vicious, and that’s not always a given. While it was heartening to see that his absence wasn’t due to friction and power plays, the painful reality was that Andy seems to be getting his house in order after four years on what Nile Rodgers calls “Planet C.” Wisely, he’s decided to get rid of any negativity in his life during this trying time.

Taylor’s letter he sent to the band to be read at their RRHOF induction has been posted in full on duranduran.com and it is good reading. We could all learn some lessons from his current perspective and hopefully without the impetus of stage four cancer breathing down the backs of our necks. We wish all the best to Andy Taylor as he, his friends, and his family deal with his current situation that denied him what should have been a victory lap for his contributions to the formation and career of Duran Duran. But we are happy that he’s persisted this far to savor the nomination and induction, as many aren’t that lucky.

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Posted in New Romantic, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

The Countess Of Fife “Star Of The Sea” Fulfills Country Yearnings For Fay Fife

the countess of fife star of the sea
Bandcamp | UK | CD | 2022

The Countess of Fife: Star Of The Sea – UK – CD [2022]

  1. Wandering Star
  2. Empty Headed
  3. Trapped
  4. Sixteen
  5. Goodbye Motorbike Guy
  6. Let This Night Be Over
  7. Humans Are A Bad Breed
  8. Second Fiddle
  9. Don’t Dress Me Up

The story began almost two years ago when The Countess Of Fife ran a Kickstarter campaign to get their debut album recorded and manufactured. The band surpassed their £5,000 immediate goal and ended up with over £11,000 in pledges from their fans. Which meant that Fay Fife and Allan Mcdowall’s Country Music project had the legendary Castlesound studios at their disposal with Jim Sutherland co-producing with Fay.

With things being in a pandemic, negotiating the recording and production took longer than anticipated, but the goal has been reached, and the CD has flown across the Atlantic from Edinburgh and been in the Record Cell for about ten days now. Enough for it to get under the skin so we can discuss its merits this crisp fall day.

the countess of fife wandering star

The album kicked off with the single “Wandering Star,” which was already a classic tune by the band, owing to its appearance on their “Live” EP. Fay’s organ sounded even better here with the harmonies of Kirsten Adamson [Stuart Adamson’s daughter] adding to the rich, vibe the band were exploring. Chris Stout’s fiddle adding depth to the sweet melancholy of it all. It was a  soulful beginning to the album to be sure, but the next track was the jaunty change of pace that was “Empty Headed.” One could almost call this song “music to drive trucks by,” with its downbeat, hardscrabble lyrics juxtaposed against the feisty fast tempo shuffle beats and deep twang courtesy of Mcdowall’s guitar. The call and response vocals in the exciting chorus with Ms. Adamson offering “She’s lost” as a rejoinder against each line sung by Ms. Fife were pitch perfect singing and arrangement!

The storyline of “Sixteen” couldn’t be anything but a Country song with a protagonist living a humdrum life out of school, working at the hair salon who’s “not pretty or smart,” but still finds room for defiance and dignity when she’s dismissed by strangers who look right through her. We loved “Humans Are A Bad Breed” from the get-go on the live EP and it’s never sounded better than here; abetted by Malcolm Ross’ lap steel that lend long, languid portamento since it’s not only synths that can pull that off. Listening to the guitar of Mcdowall squaring off against Ms. Fife’s wailing organ ramps up the intensity here to match the bite of the lyric.

The album can be called Alt-Country, for the most part, but there was one classic Nashville throwback with “Second Fiddle.” This one was built for the Grand Ol’ Opry dancefloor with the titular fiddle taking the lead and the double bass of Chris Agnew not far behind here! Ms. Fife has double-tracked her vocals here to make her performance really pop against the boisterous Country Swing music bed as she took down her no-account, third-rate romance.

By the time that I had met you
You were a hard-working man
With every bit of stuffing all knocked out
Now you’re trying to hide away again
In every short-lived pleasure you can find

“Second Fiddle”

The new version of “Don’t Dress Me Up” was a step away from the Countrypolitan sound of the 2018 version with the additional fiddle making the biggest difference though the tune still had the great cold ending we know and love. In a world where “Country Music” sounds Arena Rock with a southern accent and a slide guitar bolted on, it’s a pleasure to hear Fay Fife and Alan Mcdowall tackle the revitalization of the form with traditional music values allied with a much more progressive head space. This is music that brings the sound of 1966 into the now quite capably and is all the stronger for where it sidesteps tradition.

Earlier today, the band performed in a live session on BBC Radio Scotland which can be heard online following broadcast for those of us unlucky enough not to live in Scotland! I already have the CD because I pledged £30.00 to get it made up front, but your copy of disc awaits you at half that price, or even less if you’re of a download persuasion. The album will be released for general consumption on November 11th, you know where. Hit that button!

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Posted in Core Collection, Record Review, Scots Rock | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Rob Preuss Interviewed On 40 Years Of ‘Arias & Symphonies’ And Beyond [part 2]

Spoons autographed fan club glossy 1873
The Classic Spoons lineup, L-R: Rob Preuss, Derrick Ross, Sandy Horne, Gordon Deppe

[…continued from last post]

TECH TALK

Post-Punk Monk: So “Stick Figure Neighbourhood” had gotten the band noticed and Ready Records wanted to move in a dance single direction. How did the band at that time feel about the label suggestion? What was the reaction in the band like?

Rob Preuss: Oh, we liked it! We thought it was great because we had seen what was happening with bands like OMD and Spandau Ballet who were releasing their 12-inch mixes of their songs and so it was already a thing we were familiar with and I think as soon as we had released “Stick Figure Neighbourhood,” we recognized that things were sort of shifting in a way. There was only a few record stores where you could get the UK Imports and I would go to try to get the latest releases from from Spandau Ballet, Gary Numan, Ultravox or whoever, and if there was an extended mix or a different version you’d be like, “holy s—, this is like the gold mine, right?” So we knew that was sort of the place you wanted to be going towards, and when they when they suggested to us, I think we probably all sort of thought of it at the same time, but that just sort of became the focus. We sort of decided, “well we’re not going to worry about a whole album… let’s just get two good songs and we’ll make this 12-inch single and that’ll be the next release.” But the focus was to say we’ll make it a dance single.

PPM: That’s very good synergy. You can’t hope for more than that.

R: Yeah, exactly.

PPM: So when John Punter was producing the record, a record producer is so many things. A record producer is a part psychologist, part co-writer, part arranger, part engineer. Where did Punter fall on the producer’s spectrum? Obviously if he was programming your drum machine, he was being very hands-on about it. but as you, say the writing was already done up front. So he didn’t say “oh go back to the drawing board, that song’s not good enough” or anything like that?

R: No. We did pre-production with him though, and we did work on the form of the song. Like the arrangement of the song in terms of the intro and the verses and the chorus. And I don’t remember specifically now the suggestions that he made, but I there’s a demo of “Nova Heart” that they included on one of the releases [“Nova Heart 30th Anniversary EP”] because we recorded a demo in the winter of ’81. That’s probably the thing that he heard, I guess. And there were some small changes in the arrangement of the song that I’m sure he was the one who suggested to make the changes when we were in pre-production. And he sort of sort of extended reintroducing the theme of the opening and stuff like that, but as far as actual songwriting, he didn’t really come to us with a lot. I think when we went to do the whole “Arias” album, there were more places that he felt like having more input in that way. When he was younger, his instrument was drums so that’s why it was valuable for him [to get involved in that area]. I think he was excited to be able to program the drum machines as well.

Roland TR-808 drum machine
The legendary Roland TR-808 drum machine

PPM: And were you using 808s on that record?

R: Yes! So the story… the legend of “Nova Heart” is that the day we got into the recording studio, I think we had booked like, three or four days in the studio, and he had probably told whoever that, “we’re gonna rent a drum machine,” and I think he was expecting the Roland CR-78. You know the infamous Duran Duran …Phil Collins drum machine to show up, and they didn’t get one [of those] so they sent an 808 instead, and we were like, “what the f— is this?” Nobody had seen an 808 before. That was the first time, and I can still picture us all in the control room like looking at this thing going, “I don’t know… I guess we’re gonna figure it out.”
 
So John was like the one who said, “okay, I’ll figure it out,” and basically he pressed start and he started realizing that here’s where you press the button and it lights up. And there’s where the beats go. And he made the “Nova Heart” beat within a very short span of time. He came up with that beat and really, that’s what you call in the heat of the moment, you’re gonna just be creative and that was what he came up with. Because once you’ve once you’ve programmed the beat, we’re gonna then play on top of that. And we had to lay our bed tracks down, so the beat had to be pretty much set, because we weren’t syncing up with any computers, or simply tracked to line it up or anything.

PPM: And this was all pre-MIDI.

R: Oh yeah. There was nothing like that. So we had two drum machines: we had the 808 for “Nova Heart” and then they also brought along this Korg drum machine which we used for the song “Symmetry.” And that we synced up a Moog synthesizer to play this one ostinato kind of a note that just went all throughout it, and I don’t think we could figure out how to do that with the 808. Which is probably why we used the Korg machine. So it ended up that the 808 became the sound of “Arias and Symphonies” as well. Because when it came back to the summertime [making the full album] we all said, “let’s bring that machine back” because that was the cool thing that we liked incorporating into the sound.”

PPM: The glue that everything together.

R: Yeah, for sure.

PPM: So you were lucky. Gordon was the main writer but he obviously had no problem letting people co-write, so you helped write three songs on “Arias.” “One In Ten Words,” “No More Growing Up,” and “South American Vacation.” What was the writing process? Was there a typical method that you and Gord would hammer things out in rehearsal or that he brings songs to you, you bring songs to him? How did that work out?

R: Most of the songs were his initial inspirations. Where he would bring a real basic idea of a song to us. We would gather in our in our rehearsal space and he might have the very bare bone beginnings of song like a song like “Nova Heart” let’s say. Where he had the piano intro and then he had sort of a rough idea for the verses and the chorus. We would just sort of play things over and over and over until it started to make sense and usually he would write his lyrics and the melodies would come much later.
 
So we might have a pretty fully formed song, and then he would sort of then take that and sort of figure out… sometimes he would do that thing that David Byrne used to do where he would sort of mumble stuff and there would be, sort of nonsense lyrics, but out of the consonants and the things that were coming out of his mouth, he would sort of go back and go “what does it sound like… what does that feel like?” And then kind of took it from there, you know?
 
But the songs that I co-wrote, like “One In Ten Words,” for example, I sort of had the basic chord progressions for the song. I worked them out on my own with two keyboards and then I think I brought that to him and then he sort of came up with a melody on top of that and we just sort of took it from there. And the other songs were sort of the same. They were more jamming like sort of playing over some chords together and then the fact that we were together was like, “well I guess we’ve sort of written this together,” because we’re sort of following each other’s lead in that way.

roland Jupiter IV synth
The Roland Jupiter IV – 4-note polyphony and patch memory in 1979!

PPM: So when I look at the credits to the record, basically it’s just two synths on there. All Roland tech: Jupiter IV and the SH-2000, which is a monosynth. That’s pretty limited. How did this small synth palette affect the recording of songs?

R: That is a good question, because I loved the fact that I did it all [with those two]. Our first album I did with only the Jupiter IV, and it never occurred to me to add more. But like I said before like when we sort of realized that there was something happening with more synthesizers in music, that we thought “let’s go ahead with my electric piano.” and then I added more. I decided to add my SH-2000 because it was the first synth that I ever got when my parents bought it for me when I was 11. So we had it hanging around in my house and I didn’t use it on The Spoons gigs originally because I thought, “oh, it’s just a monophonic synth… I don’t need that!” I was sort of excited to just have one synth to focus on everything. But then once we were working on the songs for “Arias,” on “One In Ten Words,” the opening little melody line was the SH-2000, and then it’s got the Jupiter IV arpeggiator underneath it and that’s basically how I came up with the song.
 
So I only used it in a few places on the album, but it was just nice to have that limitation because I realized, “oh I don’t need to play much more than that anyway.” So really, most of the album is the Jupiter IV and only “One In Ten Words,” and “Arias and Symphonies” itself are the only two songs that I use the SH-2000 on. And then there’s a couple of places that I played a bit of grand piano as well as some overdubs to sort of beef things up a little bit.

PPM: In many cases less is more, and it helps keep the album really tight and focused.

R: Yeah! Well, like I said earlier, the fact that the Jupiter would only play four notes…it never occurred to me that I needed to play more than two or three notes, because I was usually busy playing with my right hand and then I was adding filters and modulation and stuff with my left hand because the Jupiter has a good little controller. And all I ever wanted to do was be able to play a line and then I had a filter pedal and then I had the modulation and the filter stuff going on with my left hand. I hardly ever played with two hands, which to me now all these years later, it cracks me up because I realize how great that was, to be able to just focus on that one part of the bigger sound, which is what it was.

Spoons 1983 Talkback tour book
Spoons ca. 1983 from the “Talk Back” tour book

PPM: So the first three Spoons records are quite a quite a leap frog. You’ve got the first one which is a Canadian indie record, then you bring in English royalty to produce the next one, and on the third one you’re there with Nile Rogers. How did that feel? Did it feel like you were being pulled forward beyond your ability to grasp what was happening? Or were you all taking it in stride and dealing with the changes?

R: I would say we were definitely taking it in stride. It was a real natural progression for us in terms of the making the music. Because making cool music was our primary concern. From the moment when I joined the band and we were in this little rehearsal space and just like finding our sound together and then being able to go in the studio and record the first album. Daniel Lanois was our engineer for the first album, which sounds much cooler now.
 
Because sometimes Gord will do interviews and he’ll sort of mention Dan as if he was “Daniel Lanois,” but he wasn’t! He was just Danny, because he was the house engineer for the studio because it was Dan and his brother’s studio, Grant Avenue. Of course in hindsight you look back and go,”holy s—, it was Daniel Lanois working on our record!” [laughs] But I mean he definitely had a contribution to that first album as well, but we definitely took it in stride because of the fact that we were just excited to be making music and being able to go in the studio and just come up with these ideas and collaborate with these producers who were sort of pushing us to do new stuff as well and it was the best thing ever.

PPM: The band basically went through the changes of ’84-’85 and you and Derrick left, and what I did not know until very recently when I was doing research, was that Gordon and Sandy were a couple and then they split up and at a certain point in the late 80s, the band went on ice for what seemed like forever. And you played that one gig with them on the 30th anniversary. That was the one time you played back with them?

R: It was actually ten years ago that I did a gig with them, and then I did another one… Derrick and I did another one with them, like, two years later in 2014 and I think that’s the last time. Well, we did we did a small gig in 2017 because it was Canada’s 150th birthday and they were doing a big thing in Burlington with an orchestra by the lake and a friend of mine was the music director and I did a little arrangement of “Nova Heart” and “Romantic Traffic,” and we played with this Orchestra,  so Gordon, Sandy and I came up and did a performance with this Orchestra which was kind of cool at this outdoor thing by Lake Ontario. But yeah, the 30th Anniversary was the first time that I really did a real set of music with them again in ages.

IT ALL GOES BACK TO ABBA®

PPM: Later on you went to Honeymoon Suite and then you found yourself in a very different situation. How do you make the transition from Honeymoon Suite to musical theater?

R: Weird, right? I mean of course it’s not weird to me now, because it feels looking backwards like, “oh, it was all meant to be!” That’s just the natural progression of things. I just sort of found my way into it. I was in Honeymoon Suite and we had a pretty busy schedule. I mean, joining Honeymoon Suite after being away [for a while]. I left The Spoons and then it was about nine months after, that I joined Honeymoon Suite and it was like jumping onto a moving train! Like they were going full speed, and then it was about two and a half years of non-stop stuff and I had seen a newspaper ad announcing that “Phantom of the Opera” was going to be coming to Toronto and it was like a light bulb went off in my head.

And I thought, “wow, they must use musicians on a show like that.” It’s a musical and there’s probably keyboard players working on that because I was obsessed with Lon Chaney when I was a kid, and I loved monster movies and stuff. But then I pictured Lon Chaney in the Subterranean dungeons of the Paris opera house playing the pipe organ and I thought, “oh, there must be keyboard players!”
 
So I listened to the recording and I heard all the stuff and I sort of thought, “man, this might be really cool if I played in a show,” so I sort of found my way into that world and the timing happened to be good because it was sort of a new scene happening in Toronto as well, and then it just turned into a non-stop thing where I was playing on different shows. I played “Phantom” for a couple of years and I did a Canadian tour of “Phantom,” and then I came back and I did several years of shows in Toronto. And then I got involved with the musical “Mamma Mia” at the turn of the century and I ended up doing that for many years in New York on Broadway and stuff.

PPM: Wow, so I was thinking to myself that you’re probably like, 25-26 saying, “I’m sick and tired of this Rock and Roll grind, is there something else out there I can be doing?” But it’s not even that. It was just like, “wow, that sounds interesting!”

R: It was a little bit of both. I was only 23 actually, [laughs] but you’re right. It was that same kind of thing. So when I left The Spoons, I felt like I was sort of having a midlife crisis at that point and I had just turned 20. Derrick and I, we left the band at the same time, and I sort of felt like, “I don’t even know what I’m going to do next,” but I just sort of felt like I needed to leave the band because I’ve been in the band for five years at that point.
 
So then some time went on and I joined Honeymoon Suite and it was almost the same kind of thing again. Like I sort of had this itch of, “I still want to do something musical,” but I feel like I need to challenge myself more. And then the world of musical theater scared the s— out of me, and I thought, “man I don’t even know if I’m qualified to do this, but I’m going to sort of just try my best and figure out how to get into this world.” Certainly none of my Pop music credentials had anything to do with that except that it sort of got me in the door, because one of the keyword players had heard of my band and said, “oh yeah, come sit with us in the pit and come check it out,” you know. But then from that point it was like I had to audition and prepare… like really prepare and be super scared…super nervous. I was way more nervous sitting at a pit than I ever was being on a stage in front of an audience.

Björn Ulvaeus + Benny Andersson with “Mamma Mia” London cast

PPM: Well, you’ve done that since you were 10, you know? So you got to work on “Mamma Mia” for quite a number of years and you were working with Björn and Benny on that?

R: [laughs] Yeah it cracks me up now, because it was so long ago, they were my age! I think now we started 21 years ago. We started in 2000 at the turn of the century and I think, “holy s—… Benny was like, 55! And I think, “if that was me and somebody was making a musical of my songs, and it was going to become this worldwide hit, no wonder they were so excited!” All of the Canadian cast and me getting to be with them in the rehearsal room, it was such an exciting time for us because we grew up loving those songs. One of the first songs I have a recording of myself playing was “Mamma Mia” in my band when I was 10 years old, two days before I turned 11, there’s me playing “Mamma Mia!” And all those years later to be able to be a part of that musical and helping them sort of create the international version of the show was like I couldn’t have ever guessed that it would be such a cool experience to have.

PPM: Exactly. Those guys are like Pop Music royalty, you know?

R: Yeah.

PPM: They were responsible for some of the best Pop songs ever written. To this day I will go to my grave saying all right, “Knowing Me, Knowing You” is one of the best songs ever! I mean, have you ever heard a more mature breakup tune than that? I haven’t!

R: I know. It’s true! For me to be involved with the show for all those years as well, I always felt sort of responsible in a way to keep the music alive. Coming to Broadway with the show. The British creative team asked me to come to Broadway as the associate music director because I had done the Toronto production and I think they felt confident having me in the mix only because I had already been involved with the show and they knew that I had the background in recording and, you know, my Pop background. So they felt that I could help keep it real in a way, which definitely is something that I felt through all the years of doing the show, no matter how many Broadway performers came through. I was always there to help them and teach them the melodies and the vocals. And I could sort of help kind of keep away some of the Broadway things and keep it more Pop in a way. So I felt it was like a bit of a responsibility to keep it true to Benny and Björn in that way.

PPM: It was a big responsibility, because you were the thread of continuity for the shows reaching back to pop music history, basically.

R: Totally.

What’s on your shirt it looks really cool? I can’t tell what it is.

PPM: Well, it’s actually OMD’s “Maid of Orleans.” [leans back in chair]

the shirt in question…

R: Oh, there it is… that’s amazing.

PPM: They were selling these online and I said, “I have to buy that!” I can wear this out in public shopping for groceries and get compliments on it.

R: Amazing. I love it. I browse all the time, like looking for like the ultimate Ultravox t-shirt or the ultimate like OMD and Simple Minds [shirt] as well. I do more browsing than I do actually buying things, but when I see a good logo or something I think, “oh. it’s just really inspiring to have that, you know?” Because we relate to that music in such a different way. I feel like we still have a bit of an underground scene which I think comes back to why I love reading your blog and reading all the music that you write about. Like even Robert Gordon. I was listening to him today and I haven’t listened to him in ages, and then you had mentioned the episode of SCTV that he did. I totally forgot about that.

PPM: I’m a huge SCTV geek! It’s one of my four favorite shows of all time. My favorite TV shows are very easy:
 
• Batman 1966
• The Prisoner
• SCTV
• Slings and Arrows
 
Half of them are Canadian.

R: You know, I’ve never seen “Slings And Arrows” and I have the box set somewhere because a friend of mine gave it to me years ago and he said, “you have to watch the show,” and I’ve still never seen it, but you’re the second person that mentioned it in the last month, so I need to watch it.

PPM: “Slings And Arrows” is actually one of the finest TV shows ever. You’ll see scenes of a director directing “Hamlet” that are the most gripping thing you will ever see. The show is impeccable… and it’s funny as hell.

Patrick McGoohan as Number 6 resigns his post in “The Prisoner”

R: Gord was a huge fan of The Prisoner as well. I’m sure you knew that.

PPM: I had no idea until I read the press materials that you sent me. We’re obviously cut from similar cloth. No wonder I’m a fan.

R: Exactly. If you look at the at the vinyl of “Stick Figure Neighbourhood,” do you remember when they were pressing the vinyl, you could scratch in the serial number on the vinyl and on the very inner plastic part Gord had them do on side one “arrival” and on side two he had them write “departure.” because that was his little nod to The Prisoner.

PPM: Wow! You know that’s amazing, because to this day I still don’t have a copy of “Stick Figure Neighbourhood,” but when it came out on CD it got on my infinite want list and one of these days I’ll have to go to the Spoons webstore with a hundred dollars and clean up on everything.

R: Those kind of influences are our thing, right? Just from that period you look at, all that stuff. And that’s why I was saying with logos and stuff that I think we were in a secret club listening to all that music and it became the mainstream, but there is that period like what you write about too, and I feel like that there was something really magical about that period.

PPM: It was a transitional period, for sure. In America all these British bands that from ’78, ’79, ’80, ‘81. they came to America and they got signed to A+M by ’84, ’85 and that’s when it was supposed to happen.

R: Yeah, I still remember listening to…I guess it must have been in ’85, Casey Kasem’s countdown when Tears For Fears went to number one and I was with my girlfriend in my car. On Sunday nights we would listen to the countdown, and I remember we were both excited but like a little bit disappointed, because I felt like, “oh, the secret’s out now… they’re not our band anymore, you know?” And it’s so funny because we’ve loved them for so many years already at that point.

PPM: So that’s part of the thing I struggle with, you know? How much of this is the band compromising? How much of is the label. I try not to be exclusive about it because basically I like to see everything I like become very, very popular. But I like to see it become popular for what it is, not for what it’s trying to be or what it thinks it has to be to attain popularity.

R: Exactly. Have you listened to the new Simple Minds album? I don’t know how recently it came out.

PPM: It came out last week. I ordered it Thursday and it’ll be here next Thursday. I ordered the deluxe book pack and it’ll be here soon.

R: I listened to the opening track and it was weird. On the opening track it took me a second to recognize Jim Kerr’s voice and I couldn’t figure out like why it didn’t really sound like him, but then as time went on I thought, “oh I think I’m just getting used to his voice again,” because he’s singing who he is today and this is his voice, you know.

PPM: Actually, one of the most amazing things about doing the blog is not only meeting fascinating people like yourself, but I had written about Simple Minds a lot in there.

R: Yeah…yeah!

PPM: I have a book on Simple Minds hidden within the pages of the blog, right?

R: For sure.

PPM: So a few years back the A+R guy who got them signed to Virgin Records, Ross Stapleton, started contacting me through the blog to discuss The Minds [among his many adventures in the music industry] and he doesn’t really comment on the blog but we have a running dialogue, mostly about politics [laughs]. I never would have in a million years believed that I’d be friends with the guy who signed Simple Minds to Virgin Records! How did that happen? It’s bizarre. I’m just writing the blog but I’ve been doing it for so long, it’s got quite a reach, and I was very happy when I saw that you were subscribing. I said [to myself], “wow, Rob Preuss is subscribing!”

R: [laughs] That’s amazing! I listened to a great interview with Jim Kerr with Bob Lefsetz. Do you read Bob Lefsetz’ blog at all or listen to his podcast?

PPM: No, no. I’m not even familiar with Bob Lefsetz.

R: You need to be! I think he’s been in the music industry since the 80s as a lawyer or a marketing guy, but he’s written a music blog for years and years. And then he started a podcast as well, but he’s got a great interview with Jim Kerr and it’s an hour and a half. It was earlier this year and he basically talks about moving to Italy and running a hotel there and stuff but it’s a really, really good in-depth interview with him talking about the early days of the band and then what happened to them in the 2000s when they thought that they were done and nobody wanted to hear from them again. So he decided to open this hotel and stuff. I’ll send you the link though. It’s really, really good.

PPM: I don’t have too much time for podcasts. [Ed. Note: I listen to music intensely and primarily since it’s the grist for the mill of this blog, but he sent the link and it was a great Jim Kerr interview] I basically download them and years later I finally listen.

R: Me too!

PPM: Like yesterday I was doing housework, so I thought okay and I listened to Electronically Yours by Martyn Ware. He’s got lots of very interesting people on.

R: It’s funny because I’m the same way though. My list of podcasts to be listened to is huge and I see them all the time I’m like, “oh my god, that’s gonna be amazing,” and then it gets away. Life gets in the way, right? And you’re like, “well, I’ve got this amazing collection, when I’ve got an hour or whatever to listen, I’m gonna listen.” But I think for you with Simple Minds you’ll dig this Jim Kerr interview, for sure.

PPM: Definitely. Because I have to say that when I saw Simple Minds on the 2013 tour of America they did with just seven date, it was the most exciting concert I’ve ever seen.

R: Really?!

PPM: They were doing tracks on this US greatest hits tour of seven places. I went to the same place I saw them in 2002 which was the 9:30 Club [in Washington D.C.] Yet they slipped in “This Fear Of Gods,” right in the middle of a greatest hits set. The hairs are going up on the back of my neck right now just thinking about it, right?

R: Amazing.

PPM: That was the one concert that I went to where I thought, “ohmigod, I understand beatlemania now.” Because I was just losing it, right?

R: That’s amazing.

jim kerr and simple  minds in Washington, D.C. 2013
Simple Minds @ 9:30 Club, 2013

PPM: Did you ever you go over to England to see their 5X5 shows?

R: No.

PPM: I thought about that, and I kick myself mentally because I really should have engendered the debt for that, because that was just like a once in a lifetime thing.

R: The closest I came to one of those kind of concert trips was I went to see Thomas Dolby in 2009. He did a reunion of “The Flat Earth” with the touring band and he did a concert where he was basically recreating the songs on stage and relearning the songs. Because I was a huge Dolby fan at that point, I went to I went over to London to see that. But that’s the closest I’ve came.

PPM: I was lucky. I got to see him twice that year [2012]. I saw him when he was touring America for his new album, “Map Of A Floating City.” That was a dozen years ago. He was playing a club in South Carolina that was only about an hour away. And that same year he was a guest at Moogfest.

R: He was a huge inspiration for me, not directly on the music that we were making, but just what was in the air. You know, like around the time that we were recording and even by the time we did “Arias,” I guess, he’d already released “One Of Our Submarines.” He had that EP and the whole “Golden Age Of Wireless” album. I just loved it. It was like all these things were happening at the same time, and he was using the Jupiter IV so I would listen to his records and go, “oh my god, I totally know what sound he’s using, like it’s the same preset!” It’s the brass preset that I used on “Smiling In Winter,” you know?

It’s like you recognize all those things. It’s the same with our with our first album. When we released “Stick Figure Neighbourhood” it came out right around the same time… or maybe even before, Duran Duran released their first album, and I remember listening to their album thinking, “oh, Nick Rhodes has got the Jupiter…there’s his arpeggiator, he’s got all the same sounds I do,” but it’s just because that’s what we used. It was just the same stuff.

PPM: Again, that’s another thing part of the fabric of “Arias And Symphonies,” is that [the Jupiter IV’s] arpeggiator gets a real workout.

R: Yeah, for sure. Hold the chord, let it do its magic.

PPM: Exactly, and it just adds that that level of sheen to the track and complexity while being simple! That’s what I love about the record, right? But it’s also emotionally stirring and almost grandiose.

R: It sort of became that way, which is interesting because especially with a song like “Arias And Symphonies.” It’s such a simple melody. Like what I played on the keyboard was just that melody and nothing else. And then in the second verse there’s an arpeggiator and then there’s a little melody that comes in and I remember sometimes thinking, “god, this almost seems too simple!” Like there’s just nothing to it. Should I be doing more?! But then I realized there’s nothing more to add to it, because the space is sort of filling in, like your mind fills it in in a way, right?

PPM: You know, you want to Keep It Simple, Stupid.

R: Exactly!

PPM: Simple is a better way to go.

R: And the very end of the song I did my tribute to Kate Bush, because the very end on the piano [sings the climax from “Arias And Symphonies”]… I totally stole from “Babooshka!”

PPM: Oh wow, you’re right!! I never thought of that!

R: [laughter] And nobody knew I was gonna do it, but when I was recording, because I laid down all the synthesizers, and then I laid down the piano to sort of just mirror the same melody and it got to the very end of the song and then I was like, “I’m gonna just do it… what the f—,” and then that became the end of the song.

PPM: At that point you’re thinking, “what’s the next note that should come after this?” Your brain fills it in! “Babooshka’s” ending yeah! In 1982 I was totally listening to Kate Bush and I never, to this day, realized that.

R: Thank you! See, isn’t that funny when somebody points that kind of s— out? Like sometimes I’ll hear people say things like that! When I was working on “Mamma Mia” with Benny and we were doing our first time sing through with the cast, with the cast of the band together. And so Benny and Björn were all like lined up. Benny was like sitting right beside me and we were playing songs and he’d lean over to me and whisper song inspirations! We were playing “Chiquitita” and in the chorus and then at some point in the verse he leaned over and said, “that’s Paul McCartney… ‘Monkberry Moon Delight,” and I was like, “I don’t even know what that is.” And then I would go and listen to it and then I thought, “oh my god, I could totally hear that was the inspiration for ‘Chiquitita!” There’s a keyboard line of “Chiquitita” that goes [sings melody] and it’s exactly the same thing that’s in the Paul McCartney song.
 
And I thought, “people often don’t get to hear these little secrets of like, where the inspiration comes from,” but that’s sort of how music moves along, right? So I always love my story of Kate Bush, because I think it sort of came out of the heat of the moment. I’m gonna just try it and if they say don’t do it then I won’t do it but I thought, “f— it, I’m gonna just try it.

TALKIN’ ‘BOUT POP[E] MUSIC

PPM: It doesn’t hurt to try. I need to ask you how you ended up working with Carole Pope who’s a real Canadian music icon in the last eight years? And Rough Trade have a hallowed SCTV appearance as well, because that’s where I first heard them.

Carole Pope transformed the vocabulary of Canadian rock in the band Rough Trade with the hit LGBT anthem “High School Confidential” in 1981

R: I first met Carole Pope in NYC back in 2002. We had met back in the 80’s at a few awards shows etc., but only briefly, so one day in 2002 I was in a shop and saw her, and I approached her and said she probably wouldn’t remember me, etc., etc., …but she remembered my bands, and it turned out that we had both recently moved to NYC [summer of 2001] so I told her if she ever wanted to make some music sometime, call me! And so she did!! We’ve been friends ever since.

Over the years we’ve done some gigs in NY, we’ve co-written several songs together- my favorite is one we did in 2011, “Landfall.” She wrote it as a duet with Rufus Wainwright, and the three of us got together in the summer of ’11 to record it. I played piano and bass guitar, and wrote a cello arrangement for it!! It’s still one of the songs I’m most proud of creating!

I’ve worked with Carole on the Rough Trade musical over the last few years too….and this past September, I played with her in Toronto with her band Rough Trade. That was exciting because I used to listen to their records back in ’81, before we recorded our first Spoons album, and I’d listen to Rough Trade and imagine how cool it was that we were actually going to make our own record too.

PPM: I have to say that her version of “Some Velvet Morning” on the “Music For Lesbians” EP totally eclipses the [classic] original! It’s true that Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra weren’t the most dazzling of vocalists. Give me Carole Pope any day. She makes the refrain “Some velvet morning when I’m straight,” positively explode.

R: I had forgotten about our version of “Some Velvet Morning.” I did all the music for that!! I just listened again, and it’s pretty good!!

PPM: Well, the glockenspiel was utterly perfect. And then I see you’ve also worked with Ottawa Synthpop band Church Of Trees both with and without Carole Pope!

R: My involvement with Church Of Trees happened through meeting Bernard Frazer, leader of the band! He asked me to do some remixes, and over the last 4 years I’ve done a bunch!! And I brought Carole on board to sing his pandemic anthem, “World’s A Bitch…!”

PPM: So has this more recent material been the only Pop music you’ve dipped your toes into after years of theatrical playing? Or have you found yourself scratching the itch on a more regular basis?

R: I’ve also done some work on a few other projects. A cool Canadian band called The Foreign Films have a new album coming in the new year.

PPM: I see you’ve played synths on their last two albums of what is very baroque, ornate pop that I was not familiar with.

R: I’m currently developing a solo show to play in Canada next year which will be an evening of music I’ve made over the years, starting with Spoons and Honeymoon Suite, but also mixing in some of the theatrical music I’ve been involved with, as well as all sorts of autobiographical inspirational music which I have always wanted to play for audiences as well. I’ll have guest singers, guest musicians and I think every show will be different, and it’s something I’ve wanted to do for many years!

PPM: Your solo show sounds like a real musical autobiography of sorts! It makes more sense than a book, actually.

R: If you want to do anything else let’s do it, you know, because I would totally love it.

PPM: Well, we may find the time and space to do this again.

R: Absolutely!

PPM: Because like you say we’re basically the same age and went through the same music as it was happening, so you know we share that commonality for sure.

R: It’s absolutely the truth because because it’s like you find your people, right? When you recognize something, which is why I feel like what I recognize and what you write and the music that you share…I’m instantly drawn to it because even if I don’t know it, I feel like I’m gonna learn something or I’m gonna remember something that I knew that I forgot, that I need to remember! So that’s the best part. It’s like it’s good reminders, you know in that way.

PPM: But it’s like good positive reinforcement I like to think of it as positive reinforcement.

R: Totally.

PPM: To be honest I have been wanting to seriously write about “Arias + Symphonies” since I started the blog and I wanted it to be really, really good. With this interview I could take the time and give it the consideration it deserved.

R: So it was worth waiting for! So it’s good that we got to meet in the meantime, right?

PPM: Exactly. Because this this is the impetus for it to finally happen. It was lovely speaking with you. It’s been a lot of fun I enjoyed it very much, Rob.

R: Me too. I am going to send you a link to the Jim Kerr interview as well and we’ll just stay in touch.

-30-

Posted in Canadian Content, Interview | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Rob Preuss Interviewed On 40 Years Of ‘Arias & Symphonies’ And Beyond [part 1]

Rob Preuss today

Whenever someone subscribes to the blog, I get a notification telling me that so-and-so@domain.whatever will now be receiving the posts by email. This is normally of interest to me, but never so much as when I recognize the person subscribing! Early this year my eyes widened as I saw that Rob Preuss, the keyboard player during fave Canadian band Spoons imperial period, was now receiving every blog post!

Mr. Preuss eventually thought to search for Spoons on PPM and came across the single post I’d written in the early says of the blog on the “Nova Heart” single. He commented, and one thing led to another. I figured now that Rob was a reader, the time might be ripe to do that deep dive into the “Arias + Symphonies” album that has ruled my world for 40 years. Ironically, I had not written about it yet in spite of my deep ardor for the album, because I wanted to take the time to write more seriously about it than what my normal [hasty] lunch hour posts allowed. And time was always on short supply.

Well, now that Rob was reading the blog, I judged the time ripe for that deep dive, and I broached the topic of an interview since we were already communicating in the comment fields. One thing led to another, and while I had been incredibly busy with ceaseless home improvement projects all summer, which would preclude such activity for many months, I told him, let’s try for this in October. That we managed to talk last week meant that I, technically, managed to hit my target. Our conversation on all matters “Arias + Symphonies” as well as broader topics such as producers, A+M Records, and ABBA® now follows, and being two pop fans of similar vintage, we had no shortage of Venn diagram overlap points when it came to all things musical. As Rob will note with the first volley below.

ESTABLISHING BASE LINE

Rob Preuss: We must be about the same age or I’m probably older than you because I figure from the music that you write about and stuff, I’m like you… it’s our generation you know?

Post-Punk Monk: It’s our generation but I’m on the back end of it. I just turned 59 last month.

R: I just turned 57. Still, it’s our generation.

PPM: I was 19 when I bought “Arias + Symphonies.”

R: Were you? That’s the thing, right? Because when it came out, we recorded it when I was 16 and when it was released in October. I had just turned 17.

PPM: 40 years is an amazingly long time. It’s basically half a lifetime, yet it feels like yesterday.

R: Isn’t it weird? I mean, it’s over half a lifetime now. Considering you know how old I was when I did it.

rob preuss student ID card
Rob was 15 when he joined Spoons; young, but he already knew how to rock a thin tie

PPM: Yeah 40 years is an amazingly long time and yet all these songs are just under my skin because “Arias + Symphonies” is such a classic album. I’ll just butter you up right here at the beginning… it’s not only the best Canadian album, I think it’s probably in my top 10 North American albums.

R: It’s unbelievable to me. It’s an honor for you to say it, only because when I’ve looked at the things that you’ve written over the years. And I remember finding your thing about “Nova Heart” I thought, “this is super cool.” It was just sort of exciting to think, “oh yeah, there’s people who write really well and they’re writing about our music.” Which I think it was exciting because it had been so many years of course. How did you first discover it?

PPM: MTV. MTV played the “Nova Heart” video. In 1982 I just gotten up my first beta deck and cable and MTV popped up, like, three months later. So I was just like a zombie [watching these videos for hours with a finger on the record button of my first ßeta VCR]. I learned quickly since I was reading Billboard, and I knew what the weekly adds and rotations were. I learned that you recorded a few hours of MTV in the dead of night on a blank tape and it’s probably under those conditions I saw “Nova Heart.”

R: That’s amazing, because we didn’t make the video actually, until “Arias + Symphonies” was released, because at that point even by the end of ‘82 videos were still a totally new thing, right? There were a few music shows that were playing them, but there was no MTV. When did MTV actually start? ‘83? ‘82?

PPM: ‘81 in America, but [Canada’s music video channel] Much Music started in what …83? 84?

THE A+M EXPERIENCE

R: ‘84. Yeah. So I guess the thing for us that we were really lucky that because we had a distribution deal with A+M records in L.A. they were the ones that said “you guys you need to make a music video.” Because in Canada we were still sort of like “well, there’s not a lot of places to play it, but this seems to be an important thing to start doing, so let’s do it.” So, we made the video in the fall of ‘82 after “Arias” was already released and the song had already been basically up and down the charts in Canada, but I think we made it primarily to have something to play for the rest of the world.

arias release party poster

PPM: Exactly! That was the whole point of it and the beauty of music videos back then. They were an inexpensive way to give a band reach all the way around the world in foreign markets. [at least before six figure video budgets]

R: You know what’s funny about the video though too, is that we had no sense of the reach in America. Because we at that point were not really focused on America and A+M Records didn’t really know what to do with us, and I mean that’s sort of what we found out within the next year after releasing the album as well. Because we did our first Canadian tour was the fall of ‘82 and it was our first time going across to Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver.
 
But then A+M Records booked us to do a mini tour down the West Coast. So, a guy from A+M Records came up and met us in in Vancouver and then drove us down the coast and we played some small clubs in Seattle and Portland, Oregon and we played in San Francisco and then we ended up at a gig in Los Angeles at this club called the Limelight, which at the time I think was like kind of a showcase club.

PPM: That’s amazing because A+M Records had such good taste. They licensed all of my very favorite British bands. They were able to actually wring a few hits out of them over here on the American side. I was a fan of bands like OMD and Simple Minds from early on and I had to say, “I can’t believe that this band I’ve liked is actually having hits.”

R: It’s crazy and it almost felt like we were on the bleeding edge or the cutting edge because we always felt like they didn’t quite know what to do with us. Because I remember being on the A+M lot when we went down to L.A. it was so cool to be there. They were on the old Charlie Chaplin Studios. That was their offices. The A+M lot was the whole area where Charlie Chaplin had all his film studios, and we were we were meeting them there. We met Jerry Moss and all the executives, and I remember seeing one of the guys from Supertramp walking across the courtyard and I was like “holy s—!” I think it was Roger Hodgson from Supertramp and it was just this weird thing you know? They had a new album from Janet Jackson. She had just started her solo career, and I think they had just released Bryan Adams. He was going up the charts with “Cuts Like a Knife” at that point.
 
It was but it was almost like we sort of had the feeling that we weren’t getting a lot of traction, because it’s possible that they still were a little bit unsure exactly how to market us and what to do with us. So, I think we sort of fell by the wayside, but you’re right like with all the acts that they brought in later on, certainly they knew what to do with them by that point.

PPM: I think it might have actually been Jerry Moss’ son, Ron, who was who was involved with getting like bands like OMD and Simple Minds signed. He had a real good vision on that, and I think once he was in place and had some wherewithal, things happened.

In 1983, Nile Rogers solicited his production of Spoons’ third album, “Talk Back,” after catching them live

R: The one the one really good thing that came out of our A+M deal was that they hooked us up or put us in the right place to do the tour with Culture Club. So, we opened for Culture Club on their first American tour in spring of ‘83 and that was a good chance to get in front of audiences and that’s where Nile Rogers saw us. [ed. note: Rogers was there to see about producing Culture Club and it was the opening act that won him over] Because he then came on board after he saw us in New York, and then he agreed to produce our third album [“Talk Back”]. But then we recorded the album and then they didn’t release it because they didn’t hear a [hit] song. They didn’t think they heard a single and then we went back and did a couple more songs with Nile and those songs ended up being really popular for us in Canada, but they never got released in the US.

PPM: That was the most frustrating thing for me as a fan, because I bought “Arias + Symphonies” and I thought, “all right, this group is the greatest things since sliced cheese.” I saw on MTV news that Nile Rogers was producing the new Spoons album. At the time it didn’t even have a title. I thought, “great, this is going to go over like gangbusters.” I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was just so annoying to me because at that point Nile Rogers was the hottest producer in the world, right? He just done “Let’s Dance.”

R: He was becoming the hottest producer! I feel that’s another thing, that we had him just before he became super, super hot right? Because he had just done “Let’s Dance,” then I think he did an album for Southside Johnny before he did us. Then he did us. Then he did INXS “Original Sin.” The one song, right? Which is still an amazing song to me. And then then we went back in the studio with him and did a couple more songs [“Tell No Lies,” “Romantic Traffic”] and by that point after that, he did Madonna and then you know… hit after hit after hit.

PPM: It’s just when I think about Spoons it seemed like things were… slightly ahead of the curve, as you say. Bleeding edge. A little bit too early. Nile Rogers? Probably six months too early.

R: I mean it definitely worked for us in Canada because we had already established ourselves and we were Canadian in the first place so that was already the advantage that we had, but certainly having Nile put us into another level in Canada, as far as opening up a new audience even though “Nova Heart” had already given us like a really good beginning anyway. But yeah, it was weird with the US. I’m glad you found us. [laughs]

gordon deppe listen to the city OST

PPM: It wasn’t too easy at first. I actually have a copy of the “Listen To The City” soundtrack.

R: Do you really?

PPM: I found a copy of that the last time I was in Toronto.

R: Oh, so you heard the extra two songs that we did with Nile as well?

PPM: Yes, and I also have the “Tell No Lies” 12” single.

R: Nice.

PPM: After at that point you left the band and Derrick Ross left the band, they changed management, and they changed labels in America. They went from A+M to Mercury.

R: Yeah, Mercury. That’s right because they had signed with Rush’s management, and they had their label, Anthem Records, which was distributed by Mercury.

PPM: But at that point you were out of this picture, and you were already moving on.

THE PUNTER EFFECT

in 1982 cassette tapes were tailor made for the Walkman® generation

R: But your love was “Arias,” which I think is the coolest thing, because like even the fact that you that you like the album as a whole, I just think is fantastic, because to me it still stands like a very unique piece of 10 songs. Definitely as we were making the album, it started to feel like there was some sort of a unified thing happening with the sound that we were creating but that was really to do with our producer John Punter and him programming the drum machines that were we were using and stuff as well.

PPM: So he was programming the drum machines? Because that’s the thing, of course, that I like about the album is that it gives it a cohesion with the drum machines and the live drumming over it. Which puts it into Ultravox territory, which is one of my favorite things.

R: Yeah, absolutely!

PPM: That’s what really grabbed me when I heard “Arias + Symphonies” was that from start to finish it’s got an arc and a flow to it that is unbelievably sound. As an album that is as glorious sounding as it is, when I listen to the arrangements and the production it’s very clear. I mean, it’s not a lot of things layered on top of one other fighting for your attention. Its clarity has got a punch to it.

R: It’s interesting what we’ve realized about it is that we didn’t play a lot of chords! Which is like a weird thing. A weird way to look at it, but Gord used to play a lot of single lines on his guitar which Sandy played on the bass that were often just like an octave below him. I mean, if you listen to “Nova Heart,” really, the verse is Gordon and Sandy both mirroring each other and then Gord added a few chords in the chorus, like some sort of shimmery chords, and my keyboard lines were always like one or two notes at a time.

I never really played more than two or three notes and I was thinking about it recently writing with some friends online about it and I thought yeah, we weren’t playing a lot of chords. My synthesizer [Roland Jupiter IV] would only play four notes at that time. Like I was fancy to even be able to play four notes, right? So I was definitely limited in what I was able to do. So I think the fact that we were overdubbing layers of like single lines kind of gave it that sort of open feeling as well.

PPM: It does have that open feeling, yet you’ve got the machine rhythms that are propelling you forward, and it’s got the live drums on top of that top of that – resulting in a headlong rush of a record.

R: That’s sort of what became exciting as we were preparing to record the album, because we had done “Nova Heart” and we did this other song “Symmetry,” which was the B-side of “Nova Heart.” We did those two separately with John in in the beginning of the year. When we decided to bring him back for the album, we were excited because we thought, “oh we’ll use the drum machine again,” and that became like the fifth member in a way, right?
 
And so you’re right. That was like the through line, that it was exciting for each song. We were like, “John’s gonna create something for us you know?” To give the song a foundation and then we were practicing and writing the songs without the drum machines, and then it wasn’t until we actually got into the studio when John just came up with the parts as we were going along. So it really was like the spur of the moment. Inspired in the moment.

PPM: That’s interesting because I was just wondering how much of this album was written beforehand and how much might have been written in the studio…did you have that luxury?

R: No, almost everything was written beforehand. Some of the songs we actually had been working on like when Gord first started working on “Nova Heart,” which was in the summer of ‘81 really. So we were all inspired by OMD and Gord had seen OMD playing in Hamilton at a very small club and we were obsessed with their albums at that point, and I remember we both kind of said “well, you know… we should sort of beef up the keyboards in the band.” So Gordon borrowed an old electric piano of mine which I had my parents buy for me when I was 11 years old, and he took this thing home.
 
And a week later or not long after, he’s going “okay I got some ideas.” So I still remember going to his house into his bedroom he had the keyboard laid on the floor beside his bed and he played me the little opening of “Nova Heart” like the beginnings of it. And then we took the keyboard into our little rehearsal studio at our rehearsal space, which was on the second floor where his dad had a small house that he used as an office, and there was a tiny, tiny room on the second floor that was used as our rehearsal space.
 
So Gord brought that keyboard in and I had my synthesizer as well and he had these few ideas. He had just the basic idea for “Nova Heart.” He had the beginnings of “No Electrons” as well,  which ended up being on “Arias,” and he had the beginnings of “Blow Away,” which was the last song on “Arias” as well. So those three songs were like the beginnings of Gord’s initial ideas on a keyboard. That was the first thing and then we sort of took it from there.

So starting in the summer of ‘81 through the next year we had written a bunch of different songs and then when it came time to do the album we sort of narrowed it down and nothing was really created in the studio except the opening song “Trade Winds.” I think Gord had the initial idea for that just right before we went into the studio and then we basically layered it and created in the studio.

PPM: I had imagined that was probably the case. A young band going in with an established producer…you’d want to have everything on paper first.

R: For sure. The record company wants to know that you’re prepared, and we definitely spent like a week; at least four or five days with John Punter in our manager’s basement, just kind of going through basic ideas for the songs and not [with things] completely set in stone but just to get an overview. Because we were pretty confident already because we had done “Nova Heart,” we had established a working relationship. We spent some days of pre-production with John for “Nova Heart” just for those two songs because we had never worked together and I think he wanted to get a sense about what we were doing as well.

spoons + john punter monktone
Spoons with producer John Punter

PPM: Was it Ready Records that brought John Punter to the table? Because they said they wanted to have a dance single and he was in Canada for the Japan tour of ’79.

R: Well it was actually it was our distributors, Quality Records! So Ready was distributed by Quality and there was somebody at Quality who knew John because John was on the road at that time doing sound for Japan and I think they gave him a demo of “Nova Heart” and so it sort of went from there.

PPM: I know some other names that you were talking about for production… having Mike Howlett or Conny Plank, of course, would have been also amazing. Mike Howlett’s production for OMD was astonishing.

R: I’m trying to remember the connection because our manager [Carl Finkle] was the bass player for Martha + The Muffins and I think Mike had produced Martha + The Muffins, right?

PPM: He had produced Martha + The Muffins, that’s true. [“Metro Music,” “Trance + Dance”] So he already had that Canadian connection.

R: Yes! I think that was our manager’s first suggestion was to go for Mike because he knew him and then we knew that he’d been doing the OMD at that point I think as well, so we were like “yes, we want somebody who’s in the world of electronics and stuff. And then when John came around I remember then listening to my Japan records and going, “holy s—! Like, this would be amazing to sound like this!” [laughs]

PPM: Well, Japan sounds like Roxy Music.

R: Yeah, right?

PPM: [laughs] They sound almost better than Roxy Music! “Gentlemen Take Polaroids” is the best Roxy Music album that Roxy Music never made! But that said, my favorite John Punter production is still “Arias + Symphonies.”

R: Amazing. I know he’s very proud of it as well. I spoke to him earlier this year, he lives in Mexico now. He’s retired. He doesn’t make any music anymore, but we talked about it and I’ve been staying in touch with some of the engineers as well, and we all sort of feel like it was a really magical sort of time. Like starting in the year with “Nova Heart” and then a few months later coming back to do the whole album together and we had an amount of confidence just because we love making the music together, you know?
 
It wasn’t like we knew we were super successful, because we were still sort of coming in as a New Wave electronic kind of a band where we were still not quite fitting in with what was being played on Pop radio, but we didn’t care. We were like, “man we’ve got a new sound and people are starting to like it!” So it gave us a sense of confidence in that way as well.

PPM: Yeah, I’m actually surprised that I saw that there was a 12 inch of “Nova Heart” over in the UK but it didn’t do anything in the UK charts of course, because they are biased against Canadian music to begin with…to their detriment.

R: Exactly. You know being in the studio that summer and working with John it was definitely like a super exciting thing, because like I said, we were confident, but we were still sort of trusting our instincts. We weren’t really thinking we’re going to make songs that are going to be flying up the charts or whatever. I think I remember even once they decided that they were going to release “Arias + Symphonies” as a single and then “Smiling in Winter” was a single, and I was thinking “they’re still not really like Hit Radio material to me, but that’s even cool. I don’t really care.” We never really cared, right?

PPM: They’re not really obvious singles. There’s a slight difference because you know, I think of everything I like as Pop music even though most of it’s not popular right? [laughs]

R: Yeah, exactly. Oh my god, the things you write about… that’s what I loved! The music that you cover in that time period to me is like the most exciting period of music and I feel like so much of the stuff that you write about are things that I was inspired by or that were just in the world when we were making the music. Even more so in our earlier days, like in the year before we did “Arias” when it came into recording our first album and being inspired. We did a show with Simple Minds and we did several shows with OMD as well, and we were just feeding off all those sounds. We did a one show with Fingerprintz… we opened for them as well.

PPM: They were a great Scottish band and they’re they’ve just recently had their stuff [a compilation] put out on CD for the first time. I waited so many years for a Fingerprintz CD I can’t tell you how long it felt. I was sure I was going to have to make these myself. And I still will do each album with bonus tracks and I’ve got everything. I just need the time to do it.
 
So you were a fan of Spoons before you joined them, and you were familiar with their single, but where did you hear it at?

R: Well, I was familiar with their single “After The Institution.” Have you heard that one?

PPM: I don’t have that one. [N.B. it’s a three-figure 7”]

R: Somebody’s uploaded it on YouTube. That was in the summer before I joined the band and I knew of them because they were a local New Wave band in my town Burlington, and it was a very small town. And I had been in bands for a few years at that point. I was in my first band when I was 10 or 11 but by the time I was 12 or 13, I was playing a battle of the bands and stuff and so I had a friend whose older brother was in the New Wave band called The Onos which was another local band. And my friend who lived two doors down, his older brother was a friend of the manager of The Spoons, so I started hearing of The Spoons and I had I heard a tape of one of their gigs and they would make posters every time they did gigs in Toronto and stuff.

And so I would see these posters and I didn’t really know of them. I had only heard a few songs on this tape and then they released this 45 in the summer of 1980, and then I got to see them open for Martha + The Muffins at a gig and I sort of knew who they were, and they sort of knew who I was because they knew I was this 14 year old kid with keyboards. And so they had sort of heard of me indirectly as well you know? So by the time it came to the end of that year and their original keyword player [Brett Wickens] left the band and then they were looking for a keyword player and they had an ad in the local paper and I called up to audition.

PPM: Well, that was the best thing that could have happened, because I finally got the album that [Brett Wickens band] Ceramic Hello put out, and I waited 30 years to find it, and they reissued it about 10 years ago I have to say that I found it very disappointing.

R: I know Brett and I actually worked on some music with him before I joined The Spoons when he was still in that band. We worked on a piece of music together and that was when he first came up with the name Ceramic Hello, so I was actually on a recording of Ceramic Hello before he released that album, but I feel like that album sounds like John Foxx. It’s like a version of “Metamatic” you know? In a way you can hear the inspiration.

PPM: Totally. I mean, John Foxx is my favorite artist but I think he’s got a long way to go to begin to match John Foxx.

R: It’s only because they use that Roland drum machine it’s the CompuRhythm, [CR-78] right? And so the fact as soon as you turn on the CompuRhythm and you’ve got those same beats going and it’s that minimalistic in a way, it sort of sounds like that. You know I was thinking about you when you were writing about Peter Saville because do you know the history of Brett that he went and worked with Peter for many years?

PPM: Oh yeah, I’m familiar with Brett and Martha Ladly being principals in Peter Saville Associates. I thought he was a much better graphic designer! [laughter]

JOINING THE SPOONS

R: It’s funny though, because like, my memories of my early days of joining The Spoons, I felt the pressure of trying to emulate what he was doing because I didn’t really know him that well at all, but he was the keyboard player for The Spoons, so for me I was like, “holy s—, I’m gonna join this band and play what he was doing!” So I felt the pressure for myself because I had never been in a band that was doing completely original music at that point. I mean, I had just turned 15. So I would listen to those early recordings and I would listen to what he was playing and I did my best to emulate what he was doing and then it was good because I sort of was able to take it from there. But I feel that by the time we came to make “Nova Heart” and “Arias,” then it became my band in that way that I was making my own contributions.

PPM: Even when I listen to tracks from “Stick Figure Neighborhood” on [the compilation] “Collectible Spoons,” it’s almost like you’re in that vein that he was playing.

S: Yeah, for sure.

PPM: Were you co-writing with the material on that record?

R: No, I didn’t co-write any songs on the first album. Several of the songs were songs that they had already done for like the year before I joined, and then one… two, maybe three or four songs were new since I joined the band because I joined the band in December of 1980.  And then we went in the studio around February-March ‘81 and in that time they had so many songs. When I first joined the band I learned so many songs, but there were probably three or four songs that that Gord started working on once I joined that we then ended up putting on the album.

PPM: So there was a little bit of growth input you were able to put in there?

R: Well, do you know what is interesting? The very first song on the album, “Conventional Beliefs,” was the first song that Gord wrote once I joined the band, and we were we were in rehearsals. We were in a friend’s basement rehearsing. Getting ready to go and start recording and Gord was still coming up with some new ideas and “Conventional Beliefs” was the first song that he wrote once I joined. So again, that was a song where I sort of felt the pressure of like, “oh my god, now I have to come up with my own keyboard parts and I have to figure out how to find my voice within this.” And I think it’s kind of cool that it’s the first song on the album. Because I’ve heard people say if you go back and you follow the recording history of a band and you start with the first song on the first record and it sort of sets in motion a sound that you can sort of follow the through line. And I feel like “Conventional Beliefs” really sets us off in that way.
 
Like I was telling you earlier about us with Gord and Sandy playing single lines, you know, very open kinds of stuff, and I was playing a single line on the synth that I was very happy to come up with on my own because before that I was trying to figure out what Brett was doing or Gordon would have suggestions for things for me to play and that was the first real song where I was like, “oh, this is this sounds like the right thing for me to play.” So it was like us finding our voices together in that way.

PPM: It’s always exciting, isn’t it? I mean, that’s what you wait for in a band!
 
I’ve been reading about the history of the band and the press materials you sent me, and I’m a lapsed Prog fan but I realized though, what I didn’t love was Progressive Rock so much as keyboards and synthesizers, and when the New Wave came along, I could very easily jump ship for this style that was more Pop oriented. So as someone who’s been playing keyboards your entire life how did you mesh with the band given their history as beginning as an ornate Genesis-like band? Were you okay with that or was it like, “do I have to wrap my head around something new?” I mean that they came from a Prog background and you were a classically trained player, and that naturally aligns with Prog.

R: Well, what’s interesting is that I definitely didn’t have a Prog background at all! The first thing I ever played on the piano was the theme from The Banana Splits when I was five, so I came from the world of growing up listening to Top 40 and Pop radio and the first pop songs I learned were like when “The Entertainer” was on the radio. You know when Marvin Hamlisch did it from [the movie] “The Sting?” And then I was learning Elton John songs and Queen songs in my first bands when I was 10 and 11. I was playing KISS songs and Fleetwood Mac and I love Gary Wright with his synthesizers, so my progression into electronic stuff was very gradual because I feel like it sort of followed the thread of popular music in terms of the introduction of electronics into the records and the recordings. It started off with pianos with Elton but then I would listen to the Elton John records and if there was a synthesizer added to a few tracks or if it was minimalistically added, but there was “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” or “Funeral For A Friend” and stuff like that was blowing my mind, right?
 
So that was my entrance into electronics, but then once it got into the New Wave… once I got into ‘78 ‘79 ‘80 I would I looked back now and I think, “well definitely guys like Greg Hawkes and The Cars and Johnny Fingers with Boomtown Rats and then of course Gary Numan as well.” Anything that was electronic at that point was then going to become an influence for me, so I started I came about it from guys who might have been influenced by some Progressive sounds, but I sort of joined them in progress. Coming from the Pop world as well.

PPM: And they got more popular oriented over time as well.

R: That’s right, but I guess maybe the Classical part of it was always there with me because I was studying Classical piano as I was playing in my bands. I was going to my piano teacher strictly for Classical music and for practicing to learn scales and harmony and all the theoretical stuff, but then I would go home and do my Pop stuff on my own, so I sort of had both at the same time.

PPM: A well-balanced musical diet.

R: Yeah, exactly.

TEENAGE COMPLICATIONS

Rob Preuss live 1983
Rob then; in concert on “Talk Back” tour ©1983 Pat Prevost

PPM: Okay, so here you are as a 15 year old kid joining a rock band. How difficult was that for you? What were the logistics? I mean the first thing I think of is, how can you play in clubs when there’s liquor in clubs? How do we get around this?  What were the difficulties, if there were any, for you to join a functioning rock band at such an early age?

R: It wasn’t too difficult at all. Partially because they weren’t doing that many gigs. I mean, the gigs were sort of few and far between, because Gordon, Sandy and Derrick were all in school. They were going to university and Sandy and Derrick were completing college courses, so by the time I joined, it was in the winter time basically and they had some gigs booked but there weren’t so many, but because I was so young, I had to join the musicians union.
 
And then I had to get a form from the Liquor Control Board of Ontario which was a Canadian thing that basically had to specifically say it was a union paper that had to be signed by the union and the Liquor Control Board saying “we know he’s underage,” and my mom had to sign it as well saying “he’s underage and we give him permission to play in the bar, but he has to be either in the dressing room or on stage.” And I had to carry this thing around with me. I had it in my wallet and I think I maybe had to show it one time in some weird sketchy club which was like already concerned about you know probably selling booze to minors or whatever, but most of the clubs we went to they didn’t ask and they didn’t really care and we sort of stuck to it because I didn’t really want to hang around at the bar or anything anyway.

PPM: That’s good that the union had an out for that.

R: It worked for me because we weren’t doing that many gigs at that point. By the time we had recorded the first album and released the first album, I was still 15. When we did “Stick Figure Neighborhood,” but we were playing colleges and universities and their licenses were a little more flexible probably and nobody ever really asked and they just sort of assumed that if I was in the band, that I was it was fine no matter what.

PPM: And colleges and universities were a completely different environment than a bar.

R: Yeah, exactly.

Next: …Nuts, Bolts, Bjorn + Benny…And Beyond!

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40 Years Of Spoons “Arias + Symphonies” Demands Close Inspection of Canada’s Best Album [part 4]

spoons - nova heart spanish cover Art
The Spanish A+M Records sleeve for “Nova Heart” was quite different

[…continued from last post]

Some songs are simply so splendid that they inhabit a level of emotional sweep that few others can reach. “Nova Heart” is one such song. Beginning with an insouciant 808 rhythm, the deception of its casual handclaps pulls the listener into the two note descending synth bass riff that seem a little foreboding. Then the synth riff and guitar move out of the shadows, allowing some shafts of sunlight to penetrate the pre-dawn gloom as the song’s ascent began. And if anything, this song was about ascent!

The soaring melody of the song was impassioned and, yet the production was fleet-footed and nimble. Somehow managing to avoid any pitfalls of pretension as the intriguing and evocative lyrics, which bear comparison to no other song I could name, hint at some vague yet crucial paradigm shift that will leave the current powers of society behind. Maybe it was simply the prerogative of the next generation? It was in doing research for this series that I saw an interview with Gordon Deppe where he revealed that the inspiration for the song was Arthur C. Clarke’s science fiction novel “Childhood’s End!’ Which, having read that a good six years before I ever heard “Nova Heart,” I can now see in retrospect how the song connects back to that.

Architects of the world
I walk your streets and live in your towns
Temporarily, architects of the world
You’ve served us well, until now
But soon we’ll be, we’ll be on our own

And I’ll sleep, sleep in your nova heart
As things come apart
I’ll hide, hide in your nova heart
At ease with the thought
That this nova won’t burn out, oh-oh

“Nova Heart”

Meanwhile, the 808’s rhythms provided the true “nova heart” of this song as Rob Preuss’ synth arpeggios flowed copiously through the song like rushing streams that could not be stopped. Sandy Horne’s gossamer expression vocals floated through the song as if they had been airbrushed into it. After the two main verses and choruses, the vocals dropped out and the song briefly drifted into minor key before gifting us with the most glorious instrumental middle eight possible, as the synth solo that Preuss took made it’s ascent up through the core of the song.

Then Deppe and Horne returned for a restating of the chorus and the chorus became the coda to the song. This song mas a paradox in that it was musically simple but it expressed an emotionally complex scenario. How many other Pop songs were about evolving beyond our forbears? Wrapping up anxiety and a sense of loss along with the desire to move forward no matter the cost. In retrospect, it’s not surprising that this song connected with an audience as everyone experiences these feelings growing up, and the band were certainly of the age where this is felt most acutely.

Next we were served something completely different with a curve ball from the 808 via the Latin rhythm outlier that was “South American Vacation.” Some of the percussion on this track sounded real, not virtual. The vacation gone bad lyrical slant here was the odd one out on this album, but it served well as a palate cleanser at the point in side two where the paradigm needed a little shaking up. The whammy bar activity on the clean guitar lines in the middle eight served to reveal how the bass was taking the lead on this one. Meanwhile, the arpeggiator of the Jupiter IV was still getting a workout with lots of synth filigree.

spoons quebec tour poster
A press ad for the “Arias + Symphonies” tour in Quebec [courtesy of Jordan]

Then things moved further out of the wheelhouse of the album as “Girl In Two Pieces” began with a subtle vocal trill at the lowest levels of the mix. Until I listened to this album on headphones for the first time, I don’t think I had ever heard that before! Making a big break from the album’s stylistic footprint, this was the one song here not obviously driven by 808 rhythms. I’m guessing that the shifts in tempo it featured must have precluded any drum machine usage.

spoons ticket 1983
This was the ticket for the show advertised above – the ticket was an astonishing 98 Canadian cents in 1983!

This was another accomplished psychological portrait from the pen of Deppe, and the song featured a bifurcated arrangement to match the lyrical conceits with a slow tempo Reggae verse structure alternating with the slashing, urgent Rock of the chorus. While Mr. Preuss provided minor key synth atmospherics and baroque flights of keyboard fancy, we were delivered a metallic, bluesy distortion solo from Deppe in the coda as the synths curdled around its fade for the last word. Making the track a perfect gateway to the intense peak of the album in “Walk The Plank.”

Following a razor sharp edit with no dead air as the last note of “Girl In Two Pieces” was cut short by the high velocity guitar riff in “Walk The Plank’s” intro. The 808 was back with compulsive rhythms and the handclaps that were part of the vocabulary of this album following the southern hemisphere excursion of the prior two songs.

This fiery song had every component on full power. Unleashing urgent bass, more synth arpeggios, and guitar howls alternating with slashing chords in the serious peak of energy for the album with Derrick Ross’ martial fills pushing hard on the song’s accelerator. The high seas piracy metaphor lent itself well in examining the eternal chase. We had Deppe on lead vocals with atmospheric expression BVs from Horne, but they both sang the fierce chorus mixed together almost as a single androgynous power. The cold ending at the track’s frenzied peak leaves me breathless even 40 years later.

The gentle machine rhythms and languid pace of “Blow Away” seemingly finished the album’s arc on a relaxed note. The intro featured Preuss’ synth droning like a didgeridoo while winsome synth leads on delay cascaded on the surface like raindrops on a lake. As the song developed in a leisurely fashion, wailing synth leads somewhere between choral and string patches, heavy on portamento as Deppe’s delivery of the carefree chorus belied the finality of the lyric it delivered.

Another instrumental middle eight brought back the drone from the intro before a surprising tempo shift into frenzied double time saw the track suddenly shot through with arpeggiated synth and rhythmic guitar as Ross’ fills came faster and more furious as we hurtled towards the climax to the album, with the last burst of drums and guitar lashing together for a visceral impact that was underscored by the finality of absolutely necessary reverb.


spons collectible spoons cover art

I have to admit that I’ve not heard the first Spoons album. For the pre-internet decades from 1980 t0 2013 it was incredibly scarce to someone in the Lower 48. And I never saw a copy on my several trips to Canada. Only in 2013 was it reissued in a silver disc available from the official Spoons webstore. And I’ve yet to buy what would now be over CA$100 of music from that store since I’m perpetually on a low budget. But I did manage to find the 1994 first Spoons CD ever, “Collectible Spoons,” which compiled highlights of the Ready Records era. It featured about two thirds of “Arias + Symphonies” on the preferred format, but it also afforded me a listen to two songs from “Stick Figure Neighbourhood” after a decade or more of curiosity.

The “Stick Figure Neighbourhood” material was quirky New Wave right up my alley, but it was nowhere close to the sophistication or power that their second album brought to the table. This was a case of young musicians [though Preuss was only young in age with a dozen years of experience at that point] blossoming under the tutelage of one of the sharpest British producers with handfuls of Art Rock from the likes of Bryan Ferry, Roxy Music, and JAPAN under his belt by that time!

The clarity of the recording sessions benefited immensely from the production vocabulary that Punter helped the band establish. The album, even with outliers like “South American Vacation” and “Girl In Two Pieces,” managed a powerful coherence that saw the group [there were no session players on the album, though Punter himself programmed the drum machine that was the central theme running through the songs] define the scope of the album in no uncertain terms and then proceed to fulfill its preordained destiny song by song. The outcome could not have been better for the band who wanted to take their place on a shelf with their [and my] heroes such as OMD or Ultravox. And my ears tell me that they succeeded…wildly. This was just not the sort of thing that happened to Commonwealth bands!

And the glory of it all wasn’t merely the music itself…though it certainly was glorious. The beauty was that in this case, the band synced with the zeitgeist perfectly to avoid casting pearls before swine. Their bid for talking their group to the next level [or three] worked out ideally both on an artistic and commercial level with three Canadian Top 40 singles and a gold album that made their reputation. Endings don’t come much happier than that, and though this was closer to the beginnings of the band, we’ll let producer John Punter have the last word [figuratively] with the photo of him below before we continue next with the PPM interview with Rob Preuss.

john punter gold album spoons
a retired John Punter polishes his gold album for “Arias + Symphonies” at his pub The Pig’s Ear, in Peterborough, Ontario [sold in 2017]

Next: …Rob Preuss Discusses The Recording Of “Arias + Symphonies”

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