Riding On The Phantom Train: A Conversation With RICHARD BARONE
When I spoke with Richard Barone back in February, we covered a lot of topics, one of which was the unreleased Bongos album, Phantom Train. At the time, it seemed unlikely to be coming out anytime soon. But, as we all know, life is a funny thing… A few very short months later, I hear that Jem Recordings is coming back to life, helmed by Marty Scott and the first release on the revived label will be, naturally, The Bongos’ 1986 lost classic, Phantom Train, on October 1st. And this album, as I’ve said before in my review, was worth the wait – it is a triumph. So here we are again, reconvening for another chat, many laughs and some insight as to the sudden and very welcome appearance of this long-hoped for album. My thanks go to Marty Scott for bringing it all back home, Howard Wuelfing for the coordinates and to Mr. Richard Barone for making it all possible…
So… first and foremost, congratulations on Phantom Train.
RB: Thank you!
It’s a phenomenal album; a wonderful document – you should be proud – I’m sure you are… but we touched briefly on it the last time that we spoke. Now that it’s actually out, if you would, take me through the steps of what brought Phantom Train, finally, to all of us.
RB: The real impetus was Marty Scott; he was re-launching Jem Records, which was the first label we were signed to in America. When he told me that and that he wanted to release the unreleased Bongos album, it made total sense to me. For one thing, he’s the first person that actually asked about it in that kind of sense – you know, “let me release it”. I had moved on from it; The Bongos had all kind of moved away from Phantom Train pretty soon after we finished it. Each of us came back to New York after the Bahamas; we did some shows but we were already starting to do our own things as well. There were some Bongos concerts that were done that year – through ’86 and ’87 – there were concerts, but I started playing guitar with Nick Celeste and Jane Scarpantoni on cello and then later, Valerie Naranjo on percussion and started doing club dates on my own as just me. Rob (Norris, Bongos bassist) has always played with a lot of different musicians, so he was off playing in different places in the world actually, too, with different bands like in Cuba – everywhere. You know, he’s a great bass player who plays a million styles…
So all of this is to say that maybe we needed a break from The Bongos because we’d pretty much been on tour for seven years straight. When we did the Compass Point sessions, which became Phantom Train, we had barely been home from a 300-show tour when we just packed our bags and went to the Bahamas. Now… try to picture trying to write songs and create work at the scale that we wanted to without ever coming home and just being on the road every day – in a tour bus. And quite a wild tour bus, with a wild entourage that kept growing (laughs) as we hit different towns. And traveling with bands – I think at that time, we were on tour with The Power Station, I believe. You remember them?
Oh yeah… (both laughing)
RB: We were on a double bill with them – imagine: there was this teenage audience; it was a totally wild scene for us. It wasn’t quite us. But on the other hand, it was a giant ride that we kind of had a lot of fun with, you know? So it’s like “okay, get on the bus, we’re on the tour bus.” To me, the “phantom train” is also an analogy for The Bongos’ tour bus. It was my kind of phantom train; I remember the guys would all be playing poker in the front and I would hear their game – I would be in my bunk in the back, maybe trying to scribble a song lyric. And I felt like I was on some bizarre phantom train (laughs); I didn’t know where we were – in the middle of anywhere, on a highway, day after day. Then we get out and do a show; I’d go back to my bunk, the guys would play poker – it was a crazy train ride! So with all that said, we went right to the Bahamas right after a tour like that, made an album – I don’t even know how the songs came out – I mean, I don’t know how I had songs! But we had songs that were inspired by different things – there is a thread to it all. A lot of it is about escaping and moving on – as you know, there’s a lot of imagery that weaves that record together.
But we started recording tracks; in five months, we were tracking that album, which is a long time. I’ll never forget getting lost myself in “Tangled In Your Web”. Not only with the arrangement and how the guitars interweave; we would just get so deep into like when a high-hat would hit – just the intricacies became so obsessive on that album. I love it. And I love that we did that, but it was major work. And when we finally finished it… (starts laughing) …we just wanted to get the hell out of there… We were getting stir crazy from being in tight quarters together and also then being locked in the studio. Now, the studio was a blast, on the other hand. AC/DC was making an album there and Julio Iglesias – making an album in the same studio. So we had Marshall amps with AC/DC’s stuff in every room – I don’t mean just the studio – in the lounges, in the bathroom was a Marshall stack; there were Marshall stacks everywhere, which were mic’d. On the opposite of the coin, in the afternoons, Julio Iglesias would be there, singing on his living room couch, which was brought into the studio so he could sing in a reclining position (laughs). See the madness I’ve been telling you about? And we were in the middle of all this! (both laugh)
One day, we were held back because Julio was doing a vocal and he made us wait maybe a half hour. We didn’t care – we were playing pool at the pool table, which is where the back cover picture was taken; at the pool table at Compass Point. All the bands play pool at that table, so we didn’t care that he was a half hour late; it was okay. But when we started the session, a giant floral arrangement arrived and it was a gift of flowers from Julio Iglesias, saying “Dear Bongos – sorry to have made you wait”. You know what I mean?
That’s really sweet!
RB: That is really sweet. Like AC/DC were really gruff but also really nice. I got to be right in the room, when they were doing lead vocals and I could to see how they got that screaming sound without actually screaming; it was really cool to see. So it was a great learning and fun experience. We bonded there with Emil Schult from Kraftwerk; I loved his lyrics on Trans-Europe Express and Man Machine albums, so we were fans of theirs. So I wrote some songs with him. He eventually started collecting artwork for our album packaging that became the cover of Phantom Train now. All of the elements are from Emil; even the handwritten letters for the titles.
But anyway – I think you were asking me, why didn’t it come out until now and as much as we loved it, I think we had moved on right as soon as we’d finished it; we’d moved on from it to go do individual projects. I know Jim had wanted to do some things on his own and started his band Strange Cave and then The Health & Happiness Show pretty soon; that might have been ’87, also. We finished this in ’86 and I think by ’87, Jim was off with Strange Cave. And we hadn’t put the album out yet, so it just seemed like things just moved in other directions. I was doing shows around town as The Richard Barone Trio, at first and then it became a quartet…
…And it became Cool Blue Halo.
RB: …and it became Cool Blue Halo, so we never put out Phantom Train. Now, with all of that said, it’s bothered me psychologically that it hadn’t come out because it’s a missing link in my…
RB: Yes. That’s a link to what I did even later even with Clouds Over Eden; some of the conceptual stuff. It had its beginnings for me with Phantom Train. Like the idea of the way those songs ran together is what I did with Clouds Over Eden a few years later – several years later, really. And also what I was talking about on the album – the coming of age; the mid-20’s age period we’re talking about on that album – that was our age at the time, was then somehow neglected out of my catalog. The real “I Belong To Me”; the way it was originally written there, but ”Saturn Eyes” and even the lyrics to the song “Phantom Train” – about letting the past go… That’s really a coming-of-age album; those songs are of that type and they were missing out of my… you said “canon”; I like that phrase. But yeah, missing out of my catalog, like a hole. There was a hole in there and it’s bothered me for a long time because I love the songs and I think it was some of the most commercial of The Bongos’ songs, like “My Wildest Dreams”.
This is just me speaking in terms of someone who grew up with radio, radio hits, radio friendly releases and I hear at least three, four, five songs that could have been…
RB: (smiling) Yeah, yeah – I know (nodding)
…not only then but now. And that’s what I love about it – it doesn’t sound like “then”. It sounds very much like an album of “now” and that’s a big help.
RB: You know what’s interesting to me about Phantom Train and I think all The Bongos’ stuff is that we were very aware of what the ‘80’s were; we understood even then the kitchy-ness of the ‘80’s. The only time we said “fuck it; let’s give in to the ‘80’s” was Beat Hotel. Now that was intentional; we just said “okay, you know, fuck it, it’s the ‘80’s. Let’s be ‘80’s”. (laughing) My mother called me yesterday; she was cleaning up and she found a copy of Beat Hotel. She was commenting on the styling of The Bongos on the cover: “You boys – what were you thinking? It doesn’t even look like you guys.” (both laughing)
We knew that; we knew it was about artifice. It was about the artificial quality of pop stars. That cover was not really us – it was a billboard of us; it was like “okay, we’re pop cartoons now”. Because we were doing Nickelodeon shows; we were everywhere. The Bongos, for a couple of years on RCA; we were blasted everywhere. We were on MTV; we became a cartoon the way The Ramones had done – they became cartoon characters on one of their album covers. We had a feeling that was happening to us and Beat Hotel – not only the packaging, but the music. It’s ‘80’s – “it’s the ‘80’s; here we are”.
Speaking not only as a fan but as a friend, Beat Hotel has its moments…
RB: It does.
…but it is very much of its time.
RB: It was deliberate, yeah.
It’s such a departure from Numbers With Wings but then you listen to Phantom Train and you think “I get this – and I get this – meaning Numbers… – THIS is the weird interloper!”
RB: Yeah! But isn’t it interesting that to get to Phantom Train, we had to go through the Beat Hotel.
You had to get excessive to get back to square one. What I love so much about Phantom Train is that it’s the stripped-down, two guitars, bass, drums…
RB: It is!
…acoustic guitar; the keyboards aren’t everywhere – they’re there for embellishment and dressing…
RB: Right – subtle…
…and that’s what makes this album – everything is wonderfully balanced on Phantom Train.
RB: It was supposed to come out really soon after Beat Hotel. (laughing) Beat Hotel was our “experiment” with the ‘80’s and it was deliberately something that were not going to stay with. Don’t forget – even with Drums Along The Hudson, we knew it was the ‘80’s then. Other bands were very “new wave” – we were not. We were deliberately vintage; we looked ‘60’s or late ‘50’s.
That late ‘50’s/early ‘60’s look – it was a great visual sensibility that The Bongos had from the get-go.
RB: (grins) Yeah, I know.
…which made you stand out – the unpretentiousness to the look of The Bongos; the three guys with the very vintage shirts and the short hair – the guys I would have gone to school with and hung out with. Instead of the “oh, I went to the punk rock boutique and came out with a leather jacket” look…
RB: (laughing) Exactly… I know!
But there was always an intensity that The Bongos had, from the first single onwards.
RB: Think about Beat Hotel as this: now that Phantom Train is out, you can see it as a chapter and a story. Look at Beat Hotel as… it’s like a statement – on becoming…
Okay, well now you’ve given me a different perspective… It’s the ‘80’s.
RB: We were surrounded and thrown into this pot with all the MTV acts; I was partying with Anthony from the Red Hot Chili Peppers; he’d be carrying me on his shoulders at parties – it was just the ‘80’s to the max! By that point, I wanted to capture that, too. We’re living right now; let’s make this now – let’s do it. We went in, got the producer, John Jansen, who was totally into that sound, everything was multi-tracked to the max – again, another five or six months in the studio – at Electric Lady. For every guitar part I would lay down, he would say, “let’s add a harmony to that”; everything was so thick with harmonies. It was over the top. You know what – it represents that decade for me. Someday though, it may be reissued in a different form. We recorded a whole other version of that album.
RB: And I call it the “real” Beat Hotel. It was recorded in Hoboken. So, someday there’s the possibility that we’ll do the “expanded” version, which would include the RCA version and the real Beat Hotel, which is the Hoboken version, which we did independently.
That could be really great. I saw you guys – it was March ’86 – that’s how I remember some of the Phantom Train songs…
RB: Yeah – we’d started to do some of the Phantom Train songs.
…but I remember the one song that wouldn’t leave my head was this incredible version of “Come Back To Me”…
RB: It’s good live.
Every time I hear that – I love that song.
RB: It’s a fun song; I like that song a lot. It has a real sort of Badfinger-meets-T. Rex-meets a few different power pop elements in that one.
But then it meets A Flock Of Seagulls – it has that sound; that feel – and yes, it’s got the embodiment of the ‘80’s to it. But I get it – I totally get it.
RB: It was actually a very fun time and ironically, that was the biggest selling Bongos album, Beat Hotel.
It’s not surprising – you remember U-68?
RB: “Brave New World” was on there a lot. That’s a pretty song, though.
Yes! It’s a great song – but exactly – that was where I first realized you had a new album out. But the album’s got great songs – it was the problem of throwing too many kitchen sinks into the mix.
But, shit – “Splinters” is a great song; a criminally overlooked song…
RB: It is; it is a great song. “Totem Pole” is fun…
I was about to say – “Totem Pole” live is a completely different experience – and going back to what I said about that set at Maxwell’s closing night – or going back to the set you did in ’09 – powerful. There are some songs that just leap out and grab you by the throat and “Totem Pole” is one of those. Plus, the vocal interplay with everybody is terrific.
RB: Right – yes, everybody joins in. And the Beat Hotel songs were very good live. When I wrote the songs with Jim – and my own songs on the album – they were written for a live show… The whole purpose of that album was to give us material for the tour – in my mind. I was thinking “we need a live show; we need a really hot live show.” We were doing great venues, night after night, so I was trying to come up with and thinking in my mind, when David Bowie did Diamond Dogs. I love that album, but I think it’s more designed to be the show.
It makes a lot of sense. A lot of albums I’m sure we both love – like Venus & Mars – come out better live. Just the opening of “Venus & Mars” into “Rock Show”…
RB: Absolutely – absolutely right. It’s supposed to be like a concert and to me, Beat Hotel – and the hotel imagery: we’re out there; we’re on the road and we’re playing the show – it came together on the stage really, really well. So, as much as it’s not my favorite recording of The Bongos, it is some cool material to play live; I still love to play some of those songs live. But see, now with Phantom Train, you can see how took the reins back.
Right – on Phantom Train, it goes right back to that stripped-downness, which is what made everybody love The Bongos from the beginning. It’s got – dare I say it, and I hope this is not offensive – The Bongos’ sound.
RB: Yeah, yeah – I love it.
When you look at the physical package, it shows – this is The Bongos in more of a “natural” environment. There’s none of the “costuming”.
RB: (laughing) Yeah, I do love it! And it was supposed to come out much sooner so you would have seen that in ’86; you would have seen it in the spring of ‘86. Beat Hotel came out in the spring or early summer in ’85.
RB: Maybe – so this would have come out in May ’86. And you would have seen “okay – that was just an act”; it even says that on “Beat Hotel”: “it’s just an act or just a style or just a lie” – that’s one of the lyrics of “Beat Hotel”.
There you go. It says it all right there.
RB: It’s talking about artifice; it was a very deliberate album in a lot of ways. But we didn’t produce it. Now, Phantom Train is co-produced with Eric “E.T.” Thorngren; we’d loved his work with Talking Heads; we all loved the “Stop Making Sense” movie and loved the album that was based on. And he’d also done – he was an ‘80’s producer, too – because, let’s face it – he produced – or mixed “Addicted To Love” for Robert Palmer, which was number one, right before we made that album. And also The Power Station – he mixed that album; he was a hot mixer.
But we produced it and we worked with him on the arrangements. Actually, Eric played the minimal keyboards that are on the record; very minimal. He knew; he understood us right away – that we were a rock band that played together. On Beat Hotel, we hardly ever all played at the same time. On Phantom Train, we always played, all at the same time. Some of the vocals are even done live with the group. “I Belong To Me”, “River To River” and “Run To The Wild” – several songs; the vocals that you hear are done with me singing with the band, not overdubbed.
In listening to this album – and that’s something I want to talk to you about – your vocals…
RB: I sing my ass off on this album.
I’ve listened to your albums over a lengthy span and I’m willing to stick my neck out here and say this is probably – and without question – your best performance.
RB: Thank you!
Your vocals are other-worldly. Yeah, singing your ass off is a good way to put it.
RB: I did; I did sing my ass off on Phantom Train.
There’s a passion, a confidence, a power; there’s a real convincing – there’s such emotion in it that again, it’s other-worldly. No place better exemplified than on “Saturn Eyes”; it’s one of those songs that apart from the musical arrangements, which to me were so different than anything that The Bongos had done, my first thought was “Beach Boys”.
RB: Yeah… I love The Beach Boys…
It has this clean, yet frenetic strum and it has that… I’m waiting to hear eight harmonies in the background and some waves (both laugh) but your vocals come in and it floors you on the verses but when it goes into the kick-ass chorus – then you’re going “what the hell was that?”! And you wind up playing it again. So yeah; the vocals on this album are absolutely spectacular; really, really amazing.
RB: Thank you. Really.
And I’m completely envious. But I’m trying. (both laughing) I think I’ve got “I Belong To Me” nailed.
RB: That’s a tricky one to sing. “Saturn Eyes”; the trick on that one is the chorus changes tempo and feel so strongly – the verse and chorus are very different. ‘Cause the verses are in a waltz and then it rocks on the choruses. It was a good challenge making this record. But I was confident because I also felt I was in really good hands with Eric Thorngren to record the reality of The Bongos. Understand what I mean?
RB: There was nothing – there was no hiding on Phantom Train; everything is played and you hear it and I knew he was recording things in a great way, so when I sang on that microphone, I knew it was sounding good; it sounded good in the headphones so I could just go with it…
You could just go ahead and not feel any sense of self-consciousness or…
RB: Exactly. Richard Gottherer was also great with me; he was more – he directed vocals on “Numbers With Wings” and did a beautiful job; of course, it gave us a hit with that. But it took me a couple of years of maturing to have the confidence that I did on Phantom Train. All of these things that I’m saying is why I felt that there was a missing link in my catalog because I do think it’s some of the best Bongos performances that we ever did. And some of the catchiest songs; I think “Run To The Wild” is a catchy song…
The whole album lives with you. From the first listen, it’s almost like going back to Drums Along The Hudson; on that album it’s “okay, you got me”. (both laughing). Next record – okay, you got me. And this album is no different. To me, it makes it an instant classic.
RB: Thank you.
I’m not saying that as a fan, mind you; I’m saying it as someone who appreciates what an album can do when it does its job. So in thinking of all this, is it difficult for you to actually put yourself back in the mindset; thinking about that time, that period and trying to recapture it because now we’re here 27 years later. Is it hard – or not so much now that you’ve gone through the process of digging out the tapes and listening to them…
RB: It was a big process. I went through all the psychology of re-living it while we were constructing this release. So this whole summer for me has been like a summer of trying to understand where I was at, at that time. But it was not necessary for me to go through that; it was a side effect. Like to create – to put this album together, I didn’t have to go through the torture (laughs).
RB: Trying to figure out “what was I thinking?”, “what was I doing?” – but I did go through that; I went through the same thing the year before with Cool Blue Halo and having to reconstruct that album. So in a way, I’m in a funny place now for the last two years; it’s been reconstructing the past for me. Because I tend to go with the flow as a person and I tend to move along, I don’t always reflect on things unless I’m forced to. So now I’ve had to, with Cool Blue Halo in 2012, and now with Phantom Train in 2013. I spent both of the last two summers, trying to understand where I’d been 25 years before, you know? And it was a good learning experience.
What it did for me; in putting this album together, it gave me a really good understanding of my songwriting curve – my style of songwriting to where I am now. Listening to Phantom Train now – it’s like a starting point of me as a solo artist. I could see where I was going; the “I”, the singing from my own heart – because with the early Bongos stuff, like “Three Wise Men” or “The Bulrushes” even – it’s written as almost Biblical. And it’s very far-removed from me, you…
They’re subject songs as opposed to personal…
RB: Yes – subject and it’s storytelling of a different era…
It’s storytelling versus personalized and emotional catharsis and experience.
RB: Yes. Like “Saturn Eyes” is like talking to myself; “Phantom Train” is a very personal song about a relationship that’s going nowhere and you’re going to have to get off the train. “Tangled In Your Web” is a very personal song…
We’ve talked about this before but “I Belong To Me” is one of the most incredible declaration songs.
RB: Thank you!
(Quoting lyric) “I belong to me” – a bold statement; “of course, I love you” – acknowledgment.
RB: “my life is mine to be what I want to”…
You don’t get much clearer than that. Bold letters. It’s quite a statement from someone who was a young man. But it’s your declaration of independence from… everything. You start over, unfettered. You know, from the moment I heard it on Cool Blue Halo, I’ve always taken it quite personally. It’s a highly personal and important song in my life. But to hear it in a different context done by the band and you were even younger since it was written before the version I came to know. You can see it though and the songs all fit with that thread. “I Belong To Me”, “Tangled In Your Web”…
RB: …”Roman Circus”, they were all done on my solo albums as well…
“Under Someone’s Spell”… all these songs – I’m sorry but there’s no way these songs don’t have an absolute concept and that’s a beautiful thing. To pull it off successfully is a rarity; this does it right across the boards. Start with ”…Wildest Dreams”; take that in context and listen to each song – you then realize this is an album about transition.
RB: That’s right. Absolutely. And the train image fit so perfect with that. It wasn’t like it all happened naturally; it wasn’t a deliberate outline for the album. It just evolved and that’s what came out.
As you get towards the end of the album – “Town Of One” – again, a bold statement; a town of one – I’m all by myself now.
RB: Yeah – James wrote that lyric – and yeah, I know!
So it sets you up for…
RB: Yeah – this is the album that would have been before Cool Blue Halo; but I think in a lot of ways it’s way more interesting. As much as I would have liked it to come out – because I really think we would have had a hit single or two from it – we had everything in our corner. The Bongos had a lot of love in the music industry. I think we were on the road to doing it. It’s funny and strange that other forces at work didn’t allow it to come out at the time. It’s strange but I find it intellectually interesting to have it released now. Because now, it’s a vintage new album.
Which is a very nice thing, when you add to the fact that the band is together and doing things, so this isn’t some “oh, we’re going to put this out and get back together” nostalgia trip.
RB: Yeah, yeah – it’s not nostalgia because it’s new even to us. We haven’t done this particular series of songs – well, some of them, ever!
I’ll paraphrase Robyn Hitchcock: it’s like a letter mailed in 1986 and just arrived in 2013.
RB: Yeah, that’s right – it’s now; it’s very now!
The other thing is – and I’m sure you’ve thought about this or you’ve heard this from other people – it’s an album that, to some degree, has built mythological status since it’s never been released, Smile being the most obvious example…
RB: (nodding) Yeah, absolutely – yeah, exactly…
One tends to be a little deflated or disappointed because it’s not what you’ve built it up to be in your mind. But this is the album that’s just the opposite. And that’s a rare and somewhat difficult thing to say and I say that in the most positive way. I’m no different than anyone else; I had my reservations…
RB: Yeah, yeah – I know…
You know, “I love The Bongos, it’s 1986 and it’s coming after Beat Hotel – I know some of the songs, but what are the recorded versions going to sound like?”… And I get this album and I’m knocked right on my ass with the first listen…
RB: Good! (laughing) It’s a good album…
…And I wind up listening to this fucker again and again… (both laugh) It’s called a great album. I can put it in as many nice words and all the hyperbole we want – this is an instant classic.
RB: Thank you!
No, no – it’s just a fact.
RB: No, I do agree with you!
RB: And I thought it then, too; it was going to be a classic.
I think you can listen to yourself as a listener…
RB: Right – I’m a fan of The Bongos; a real fan.
So you know how good this album is with that perspective.
RB: You know, I hear what you’re saying about my singing, but I hear Rob’s basslines and Frank’s drumming on this is phenomenal.
You finally hear Frank and Rob the way you should hear them; “River To River” is a great example. All of a sudden you hear that (both imitate bass riff from song)… And the nuances with Frank’s drums – “Saturn Eyes”, with all the non-stop rolls…
RB: Oh my God, yeah…
The great thing is he knows where to play, when to play and when to refrain – you’ve got to love any musician who’s instinctual – and he’s such a musical drummer, you know?
RB: Oh, yeah – well you know, he and I worked really together with the vocals and the drums so that everything happens at the right time for the vocals, too.
Now, who’s singing on the harmonies – is that you, harmonizing with yourself or is it Frank or James?…
RB: On this album, on “Sunshine Superman”, you can hear James. Normally, the formula for The Bongos is Frank doing the background vocals or sometimes Frank and I together. Because our range – something happens when we sing in unison. When he and I sing a harmony part in unison, that is part of The Bongos’ sound. Like we sing the harmony as an overdub, together. But often, it’s just Frank. A lot of the songs have Frank’s signature… like on “Run To The Wild” it has his “ooh ooh” (sings the high backing part) – it’s great and it’s catchy. It has a lot of signature backing vocals on this album. But it’s mostly Frank. Jim, occasionally, you’ll hear a line or two from Jim, usually. But it’s Frank’s voice and mine that creates that Bongo harmony sound.
They’ve always been water-tight harmonies.
RB: Yeah… Even live – I don’t remember if it was The Village Voice, but somebody was reviewing us early on and they said when we sing together, it’s an Eno-esque effect – treatment effect because the voices almost chorus-ed each other out because the voices are so similar, almost like an overdub live.
But then it goes into harmony as opposed to…
RB: Yeah – but that is a sound that is unique, I think.
You have a lot of that with Nick (Celeste, singer/guitarist with Richard during solo works), though, too.
RB: Yeah, Nick is great.
Those harmonies of his are gold. So natural.
RB: They are. And Nick is a great lead singer, so when I sing with Nick, I don’t think of his part as being backing vocals. So it’s almost like a double-lead kind of thing. Where Frank is singing background parts. Because Frank has such an ear for pop and great harmonies and background vocals.
You know, one of the things I’ve always loved about your lyrics; very few writers can pull off referencing classic songs or classic song lines – without sounding half-assed about it. You do it in such a subtle manner and it always works…
RB: Thank you!
And I hate you for it. (both burst out laughing loudly) Right down to “…Wildest Dreams”: “hang on to yourself now”.
RB: Oh, right! My Bowie line…
It’s like “goddamnit, he did it again.” If I do it, I get killed every time.
RB: (laughing) I like that “hang on to yourself now…” I’m referencing it for now. It’s like saying, “see what he was saying then?” (laughing) I know that sounds ridiculous, but it’s how you frame it.
Right, right – but there you go. You do it in that wonderfully subtle manner… Okay – so, getting back on track – you get out the tapes, you go through the psychological process…
RB: I don’t want to make it seem like it was a bad process; it was a really cool process but it was a process. Before we’d started recording for this interview, we were talking about how after Numbers With Wings, The Bongos seemingly had unlimited studio time – we stayed in the studio for many, many months. Which meant there are a lot of versions of these songs.
That became then a task – would that be a fair estimation?
RB: Yeah, and that’s almost one of the reasons we were exhausted after making Phantom Train – not during – during was fun. We had so much material. Plus, that whole time is a blur because we had done this right after the Beat Hotel tour; there was a very fine line, even though the albums are very different.
There was literally no time lapse; recording – album – touring album – back to studio.
RB: Right – no time lapse. We were still in Beat Hotel head, live. So, we would say, “well, what if we tried it like this?…” and Don Dixon would come in and we would do “Run To The Wild” with a whole different sound and style. Or Richard Gottherer would come in and I’d say “hey, Richard, why don’t you come by” and we did “I Belong To Me” with him. So there are many different versions of the songs. And “Tangled In Your Web” with different instruments on it; I mean, there were serious diversions between the songs and differences.
You could always do a box set later on…
RB: Maybe… But like “Tangled In Your Web”; in the middle, there’s almost a bagpipe-sound. I don’t know what we used – a bunch of synths; Jim played – it’s a bagpipe riff on guitar – in my mind. Whatever that sound was in the middle, there are other versions with something else there. Endless variations of these songs, in other words, because we were in the studio saying “oh, I wonder what would happen if we did this…?” “I wonder what would happen if we did it slower?” (laughs) And we would try every variation. And in mixing it, “I wonder what would happen if we left the guitars out here?” More than ever – and I make records all the time – more than ever on Phantom Train, there were millions of variations of every song. So putting the final album together now, when I’d completely forgotten what we even did, I was going through hours – it was like the Let It Be tapes. Days of music.
So I sat with Steve Addabbo – first, the tapes had to be baked again. Like Cool Blue Halo and Drums Along The Hudson, the tapes have to be baked…
Shit… (both laugh)
RB: Those ‘80’s tapes, since they were environmentally-sound, were self-destructive because they missed some ingredients to make it stay “dry”.
You should open up – seriously – a tape-baking service…
RB: And make cupcakes on the side – you can make some extra money. You know, bake tapes and cupcakes, I’m telling you!
It’s a convection oven, so… Anyway – after they were all baked – and the poor guy; he was baking over a hundred reels of tape.
Jesus… How long was that process?
RB: It took weeks of baking, because we wanted to have access to all the tracks and mixes.
RB: You can only put a few in the oven at the same time. The tapes would be sitting in there, stacked – maybe five? So when they were all baked, we had to transfer them to digital because they had to go into ProTools and then frankly, I would hear things in one mix that I liked that wasn’t in my favorite other mix. Say for instance, “My Wildest Dreams”… we had like fifty different mixes of it (laughing) in different styles. “That one has this, but this one has that”… I was losing my mind! So sometimes, I combined two mixes.
The “Strawberry Fields Forever” concept.
RB: Exactly. A lot of these on this album were reconstructed to get the best of the mixes.
Hey, some of our favorite records have come out that way.
RB: “Strawberry Fields…”. I’m sure a lot of Smile is…
“I Am The Cosmos” is three different tapes.
RB: Oh, really?
In fact, you can hear on the Rhino Handmade edition, where they use the original single mix…
RB: You hear the edits?
Yes. You actually hear where the tape “drops” on the cymbals…
RB: Wow… But making records is about editing, so we didn’t change anything, nor did I add anything now; nothing was added in 2013.
Everything is from when those sessions happened.
RB: The mixes that I mixed with Steve Addabbo, which were “I Belong To Me” and “Run To The Wild”, were because the source tape of the mix was damaged but the actual master tape was not. So we did a new mix. But it was pretty close to how they sounded. And most of the effects were printed on tape because The Bongos recorded them. Any effects that we used were recorded with the recording. It wasn’t something we added later.
It was your amps and guitars and that was it.
RB: Yeah, so none of these sounds are 2013 sounds; the sounds of this record are all from then – I didn’t change anything, which is pretty cool because people will say “oh, did you remix and put some modern plug-ins?” – I didn’t use any plug-ins. Whatever sound was on the tape is what this is. So I’m pretty proud that we made a great record then. Without any digital technology…
What’s great is in listening to you, there’s no trace of “okay, I went through this process; it was an arduous process but I still love the record.”
RB: I still love the record.
And that’s the great thing.
RB: We had fun! It was an embarrassment of riches… (laughing) not an embarrassment of Richard (referencing his two compilations of solo material); we had all these mixes to choose from and they were all good. Like “Sunshine Superman” – I don’t know how many mixes we had of that. I think “Tangled In Your Web” got the most mixes; I don’t know why. It was never going to be a single, but we went crazy trying to get it… that was the mood of Phantom Train; it was a very creative process. After doing Beat Hotel with another producer, we wanted to take the reins back on Phantom Train. So we were in control; The Bongos were a democracy and are, still. So everybody had ideas. We were constantly trying stuff. It was a very creative circle going on there. And then having the vibe of Compass Point as the background of where we were working was really interesting. Our apartments were there – we stayed at the studio – and it was on the beach. There were leisure times there, too. The one thing about Compass Point; it was a wonderful studio – it’s no longer there – most studios have a maintenance department. If you’re in a city like New York or in New Jersey – somewhere around here – if you have something break down, you just call somebody and in a half hour, there’s some guy with a screwdriver, fixing it.
But… with Compass Point, if the SSL console would conk out or a computer would not work, we’d have to get somebody from New York to come to the Bahamas.
RB: That would give us a day at the beach or two. And we would go hunting for pirate treasures. We would go digging around for items. We had some crazy days off.
I think that’s the first time I’ve ever heard of a band going off on a pirate treasure hunt! That’s cool.
RB: It wasn’t like to get the gold (both laugh); pirates would leave remnants of their pipes and items…
That’s really cool
RB: It was a really creative time and we would walk into town and have a look around… It was nice recording in another world. It’s different than when we’d be recording on 8th Street; we made Beat Hotel here in the Village.
I was always surprised that you guys never recorded at Water (Water Music Recorders, the legendary Hoboken studio).
RB: We rehearsed at Water. We thought of Water as a rehearsal studio. I think we recorded that version I told you about – that may have been recorded at Water Music…
RB: We brought our mobile equipment into Water’s rehearsal studio. But my amp was there – I only recently retrieved an amp that had been there since 1983 or something…
RB: I know; it’s crazy.
The Bongos – who put Hoboken on the musical map…
RB: We rehearsed at Water and at first, it wasn’t a fully-fledged recording studio. We often let our producers pick the studios. We thought “they know what they want” as far as studios. So Gottherer chose Skyline, which was Nile Rodgers’ studio; that’s where all his records were made. And John Jansen wanted to use House Of Music and Electric Lady. And we did some stuff at a studio called Power Station, which is now called Avatar. But those were chosen by the producers and we were happy to try out new studios.
Mix-o-lydian in Boonton…
RB: Yeah, we went there, but that was our base; that was our home. And we did some of this album there. I think we recorded “Sunshine Superman” there entirely with engineer Don Sternecker.
The funny thing is, in my way of listening to things and what I catch, sonically, when all is said and done and you stack all those Bongos records up…
RB: They all sound good!
Yeah – the Fetish releases or what became Drums Along The Hudson still sound the best.
RB: Oh, I love those too, yeah.
There’s a certain balance of everything that’s “just right” and this album is the only other one that captures it all in full, you know?
RB: You’re right. I love Drums Along The Hudson. We did a lot of that mixing with – I went back to England, when we did that album, with just the producer, Ken Thomas. Although not the producer – again, the same situation; same formula that Phantom Train is. The band produced with a great producer/engineer. ‘Cause Ken Thomas had done Wire; a lot of great records in England and was a great engineer. But he was also humble; didn’t force his “sound” on us; he was happy to collaborate with us as “produced by The Bongos with Ken Thomas”. That’s how Drums Along The Hudson – why it sounds like that. So I could sit in there with him and say “I need these drums to sound really in your face here” and we could talk about it and he got it right away. He understood we knew what we wanted. I don’t mind that Richard Gottherer wasn’t that way; I don’t mind that Richard Gottherer was a real old-school producer because he taught us a lot. Because he made some great pop records for us, like “Tiger Nights”; a lot of that is Gottherer. I had the song with Jim, but in the studio, Gottherer would tell us “I need another verse here” and we would write another verse; he told us what we would need to flesh out that song. That’s Gottherer; can’t take that away from him. But it’s not the same as if you produce yourself.
RB: And maybe for The Bongos; maybe the sound you like and that I like, is the band producing themselves with a great engineer. That’s what Drums Along The Hudson bookended by Phantom Train is. A super great engineer who is not too arrogant, not too full of himself and just would listen to our ideas in an honest, clear way. That’s how E.T. was and he was out riding high with number one records. But yet, he was totally collaborative.
We had some great effects on Phantom Train; brand new. There was an effect called the “cyclosonic panner”, you know – in stereo, you have left and right. But some crazy French inventor made one that you could change the panning in all directions; imagine like a gyroscope. The panning on “Tangled In Your Web” has it; “Roman Circus” has it and I’m sure at least two other songs. We’d just gotten this box in there and this is way before plug-ins were made, so this was a real electronic box which shifted the panning to go in all different directions. We had some great toys. And the producer would know what to use to get the sound we wanted. That’s how we worked with E.T.
It’s always good to have that kind of instant bond or rapport with a producer. Or producer/engineer.
RB: Yeah. But at first, his personality was a little intimidating – he looked like a pirate himself. He had a ponytail and this demeanor and the swagger. But a heart of gold and a sensitive co-producer and collaborator. He’s one of my favorites that I’ve ever worked with. So that’s why this record sounds good. Ken Thomas was the English version of that; a little more subtle. The mood with Ken Thomas was if I’d go do a vocal, Ken would say (imitates British accent) “how was that for you, Richard?” Very humble. And that was the British style.
Not doing the over-aggressive “I need you to do it again – you were a little flat on bar sixteen”.
RB: Yes. So many producers are harsh with vocalists; my favorite line was Todd Rundgren, when he’d tell his artists – the most compliment they would get out of him was “okay, that was adequate – you can leave.”
(both laugh) He’s charming. Andy Partridge would have a few words to say about him, I’m sure…
RB: In England with Ken Thomas, making our first album; to have that kind of sensitivity, was so nice and it helped us make a great album. Drums Along The Hudson has been in print since 1982 and those singles since even before that.
They sound just as good today.
RB: Very fresh.
The thing about The Bongos – I feel – is that they’re one of the few bands that – with the exception of Beat Hotel – don’t sound “of their time”.
RB: And that one was deliberate. Absolutely, yeah.
It’s a wonderful template or blueprint for any band that would want to come along now. This is what a band should strive to sound like. A healthy balance of drums and bass; tasteful guitar solos, not this now-standard…
RB: Yes, yes. It’s a tight band; the parts are tight. They fit well together; they lock in place really well.
There’s structure in the songs; not this meandering horseshit that people delve into… There’s “experimental” and then there’s “irritating”.
RB: Yes. The Bongos would experiment, but it would be in the context of a pop song. I think the most experimental we ever got was on Drums Along The Hudson; on a song like “Certain Harbours”.
With the free-jazz sax…
RB: Yeah, it goes crazy with the sax in there. But again, it’s experimentation in three minutes.
Plus, it still has a memorable melody; it has hooks.
RB: Yeah, it has hooks. You’re right. And also, The Bongos were aware of the decades we were pulling from. The ‘50’s, ‘60’s and the ‘70’s. Like the glam of the ‘70’s, the purity of Buddy Holly from the ‘50’s, maybe and the Beatle-sque qualities we all love and the British Invasion image from the ‘60’s.
But from the ‘70’s, you were also pulling from the urgency of punk. It was right over your shoulder.
RB: Oh, yeah, absolutely, absolutely right. I was really turned around by The Sex Pistols and The Ramones right away. And Richard Hell. All of us really loved The Ramones. And it was great for us to be able to tour with The Ramones.
The Bongos on tour with The Ramones?
RB: Yeah, that was a good double bill. For just a few shows, actually.
Which tour was that?
RB: Drums Along The Hudson. Up through some of Numbers With Wings.
RB: And those were great shows.
That would have been fun to see.
RB: I loved the outdoor festivals; I seem to remember those. And we were in awe of that machine.
You’ve seen the documentary – they were a machine.
RB: Of course, yeah. They were a machine, but you could see it took a toll on them, terribly. Emotionally and physically, it just wiped them out.
That’s the one thing about watching rock documentaries; they do tend to make me a little sad. Because few-to-none have happy endings.
RB: I think the Cool Blue Halo documentary that comes with the 25th Anniversary package is a happy… (starts laughing)
(also laughing) But that’s you!
RB: …I hate to advertise it, but I love that documentary. The guys who made it had to learn the story before they actually filmed it.
Is there, in all seriousness, a possibility of getting that documentary out to the public as a separate entity? Why isn’t it on pay-per-view?
RB: I love that idea.
It makes sense.
RB: Yeah. And it would be great to have the documentary and the concert available on iTunes as a download. You know, just to buy the concert.
Absolutely. There are current rock documentaries that are not only in theatres but already on pay-per-view and iTunes at the same time.
RB: (referring to the Cool Blue Halo 25th Anniversary concert film) I think it came out really good. When I played that show last year, I was wondering how it was going to look as a concert film. It’s not like Lady Gaga; I don’t wear a bra with conical breasts (both in hysterics)… like Madonna. I don’t do that, so it was “what is this concert film going to be?” And as it turns out, I love that concert film.
But you just said the key words: “what is this concert film going to be?” Exactly that – a concert film. This is a musician who is getting up there to celebrate an album that’s a landmark record; to celebrate the anniversary of that landmark and to deliver it to an audience – unfortunately, not at the original venue since it’s gone – but still, a wonderful venue with an audience who knows the record, knows the music inside and out; loves it and appreciates it and is going to celebrate it with him. That’s the whole gist of this concert film. It doesn’t need to be a spectacle; it doesn’t need all the bells and whistles and pageantry.
RB: What really makes that story unfold, to me, is when guests come on the stage. Tony Visconti, who was my life-long hero…
And now collaborator
RB: …and collaborator and to have Garth Hudson, which was really great because it links me to something in a way I never could connect with before. An earthy, American – Americana, even – playing style. To have it all come together on a song like “Love Is A Wind That Screams” made total sense to me.
It does – it makes a song like “Love Is…” as one you could imagine Robbie Robertson performing.
RB: And having not only the original Cool Blue Halo band but adding Rob on bass…
And having Deni come out and play violin.
RB: Yeah… so many wonderful moments.
THE BONGOS WILL BE AT THE LIVING ROOM, NEW YORK CITY, TUESDAY, OCTOBER 15TH