Richard Barone has been many things over the course of his now-thirty year music career: singer, songwriter, guitarist, producer, arranger, concert director, teacher, author and frontman, both with Hoboken legends the Bongos and as a solo performer. Yet his enthusiasm and unabashed love of music in all forms is as youthful, energetic and joyful as any teen being exposed to new sounds for the first time; a man who counts and shares his blessings at being able to do what he loves most (and have it sustain him for his livelihood).
When we met up for lunch at the Village Inn in the west Village on a rainy Saturday, it was no less than a pleasure and an education to speak at length with someone whose music has been a part of me for as long as he’s been releasing records. Here’s some of what we talked about that afternoon…
Let’s talk about old and new. What are you currently working on?
Well, I’m always thinking about what my next album is – I’ve always been that way. The minute that this album – the Cool Blue Halo 25th Anniversary concert came out – the second it was mixed – I was thinking about my next studio album; you know, what I’m going to do. So that’s always going.
If I have a multi-track life – I think I do – I think everybody does – but I know I do (laughing) – one of the tracks is always the next album. That’s always rolling; that’s always on maybe track 1 or maybe track 24; I don’t know which one – but on one of the tracks is the next album project and the next studio album project. But then I do work with a lot of other artists and have done many which, I’m sure you know – like Fred Schneider, Quincy Jones’ daughter Jolie Jones, Rolan Bolan, Johnny Rodgers, Deni Bonet… And right now I’ve got a couple of albums in the works.
They’re each complex in a different way. One is an artist named Tracy Stark; she’s a songwriter and she’s also a musical director for a lot of different artists who are not necessarily musical artists or if they are, don’t play an instrument – Tracy does their musical direction. Like for example, she does Lesley Gore; she works with the actress Karen Black; those are two artists she works with. Another one is Randy Jones of the Village People; she works with him. Now these are awesome artists in their own way, but they need a musical director, and she’s theirs. And because of that, she has access to a lot of interesting, eclectic artists that she works with, so… I produced an album for her in 2005 called A Feast For The Heart. It’s sort of in the cabaret vein; it’s that kind of style of music – a slight hint of jazz, but it’s not really a rock album, per se. It’s that singer-songwriter – it’s Carole King meets Liza or something; Carole King meets someone on the Broadway stage. To me, it’s really fun.
On the second album we’re doing now, she didn’t want to sing much – at all. She wanted other artists to interpret her songs, which is unusual for a singer-songwriter, you know? She said, “I don’t really want to sing on this one.” So we’ve been putting together a sort-of cast of characters to sing her songs and so far it’s been, I think, a really impressive roster – Nona Hendryx, Lesley Gore, Ann Hampton Callaway who I love from the cabaret world and Jane Monheit, a jazz singer; again, Randy Jones and the list kind of goes on and it’s quite an eclectic array of singers doing a Tracy song. Each one requires a whole different kind of production style because it’s a different kind of singer. So I’m right in the middle of producing her album and we’re almost done now; we were just in the studio last night until maybe 4 a.m. working on a couple of tracks for that, including Karen Black’s track, which is called “My Greatest Nightmare.” See – in other words, the singers on this album are cast as actors to portray the songs. So that’s one of my projects right now; it’s orchestrated – beautiful musicians – strings where needed and you know, of course I love all that stuff so… It’s a real production.
The other project I have in the studio is one of my former NYU students who just graduated from the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music and his name is Chris Duggan. Even though the album may have a band name, the primary artist is Chris. As we know, sometimes there are bands that are really driven by the one lead songwriter, you know, so Chris’ album is his album, really, but it may have a band name. But it’s great; he’s 22 or so and it’s a really nice mix of – he’s very, very well versed in pop rock of all the ages; of all the decades, but it’s very modern sounding, too, which is what I love is when you can combine all the modern elements that we like; the right synths, the right crunchy guitars, the right crunchy snare, but in a structure that’s really classic pop-rock. Classic Badfinger but also with Ke$ha’s snare drum; it’s modern and it really snaps. But it’s cool songs; good hooks.
Do see yourself now more as a producer more than you did before?
No, I’ve always considered myself as much as a producer as an artist. Remember that when I still lived in Tampa, I was mostly producing with my band. You know, there were no clubs to really play at that were cool. We had a band called the Snails. We were doing a combination of Velvet Underground songs, Sparks, occasional Captain Beefheart, believe it or not, in Tampa. Early Beatles, you know – this was our repertoire and where would we play in Tampa where the dominant sound was country rock. Where the Allman Brothers and The Outlaws were the bands that we were dealing with down there – where were we going to play? So I did a lot of production work.
That’s why when I produced Tiny Tim at age 16, I was in the studio all the time, trying to make recordings with my band the Snails, so when Tiny Tim came through town it was like “hey, we’ll make an album; we’re in the studio tomorrow- why don’t you come?” and he said yes; he liked us and I was able to bring him into the studio and we recorded the album that finally came out in 2009 on Collector’s Choice called I’ve Never Seen A Straight Banana. But that’s because I was producing a lot. I’ve always seen myself as a producer.
The only times I haven’t done more was if I was on the road 300 shows a year with the Bongos. When I lived in Hoboken, I produced Beat Rodeo; a group called the Phosphenes for the Coyote label at that time; a group called In Color, with Nick Celeste, who is still singing with me… Natalie McDonald who was the awesome president of the T. Rex fan club and had the “T. Rex Electric Warrior Free Press” fanzine – then ran the Bongos’ fan club; I met when we were like 14 years old and I used to write to her; she lived in Hackensack, New Jersey. I always was with someone in the studio in varying degrees of fame. Now I happen to producing people who are well known – like Pete Seeger’s current single I produced, or I worked recently with Liza Minnelli. Lately, it’s been a lot; as you know, I’m in the studio almost every night with someone.
So would it be a fair thing to say then it’s a very nice and healthy balance between the performer and the producer?
I like to say it’s 50 – 50. When Pete Seeger asked me to produce this single for him – I did it with Matthew Billy – we collaborate a lot on these recordings – Pete said, “how much of a percentage of your work is production and how much is performance?” and he was very interested in that; Pete is very interested in everything about everybody he works with. And I said, “Pete, it’s about 50 – 50.” And I think that’s about fair to say. And I see myself as 50% a producer and 50% a performer. And it’s not just producing recordings; I like producing concerts…
Talk about that, then. You have something coming up…
I’ll be able to tell you more about that once it’s been announced, but it will be similar to the tributes I produced to Peggy Lee in 2004, 2005, at the Hollywood Bowl, Carnegie Hall, and in Chicago at the Ravinia Festival. Those were quite big shows. With eighteen different singers, ranging from Rita Moreno and Bea Arthur to Debbie Harry and Nancy Sinatra; a crazy variety of singers and different styles. And I would do something similar with this project.
Let’s go over to your teaching at NYU. Talk about that for a minute, if you don’t mind.
I don’t mind at all.
It would seem that you’re able to go from one skin to the other: from performer to producer to arranger and concert director to teacher.
Yes. You know, it’s all the same to me. That’s why it’s hard for me to say “am I a producer or am I a performer” and then adding to that “am I a teacher, or am I a concert director” – I think about it as producer, but yeah, it really is directing. I think of it as basically the same thing. It’s not different for me when I’m working in one aspect of this work or another; it’s really the same. When I’m in the studio, it’s very much like my class; we discuss things the same way in the studio, you know, “how about we try this?” It’s about experimenting with music; about seeing what works – it’s all a thinking process. I see it as the same process, really.
With the students, I just have to sometimes have to remember that they don’t have the same history that I do, so sometimes I have to elaborate a little more. That’s the only difference. I might have to explain Ziggy Stardust, if we talk about alter egos; I might have to explain a little bit about David Bowie. I may have to send them a video clip or two so they can understand that you can have, as a performer, a persona. And you can play with that persona and you can change that persona because you’re on stage and that’s what a stage is. And my class is called “Stage Presence,” so that’s the class. Right now we’re doing alter egos; I no longer call them by their real names for two weeks! I’m using only their alter ego names. The conversations are very similar – when I’m talking to the class, it’s like talking to my collaborators in the studio. It’s just that the only thing added to that is knowing that I have to add a little history to it. So my class has a good amount of history. But otherwise I see it as the same process. When I stage a show like the Peggy Lee tribute or hopefully the “other project” later this year, it’s really similar to me putting my own show together, just specifically, it’s not about me; it’s about them. That’s all; that’s the only shift. But it’s still about putting the show together – a good show – where it all connects and that it pops.
Speaking of your class, Frontman is the required text.
The only textbook I use is Frontman, that’s correct, yeah.
…which to me is one of the finest – and I say this in absolute seriousness – autobiographies written by anyone. Talk about being honest and heartfelt, very warm and very positive, which you don’t frequently get in autobiographies because everyone is always out to strip away the myths and so on and so forth…
… but have you gone back and read it just as a “reader”?
No! No, I have not.
Do you see yourself writing another book?
Yes, I do! It’s been suggested to me to add a couple of chapters to Frontman, because I was going to write a new book. I have a title – but someone suggested – I may do this – is to have an addendum to Frontman, which brings it a little more – ‘cause that came out in 2007 and since then, I’ve done a lot of different things. I mean there’s a whole chapter that could be about the Pete Seeger project for me. And the teaching. So someone has recommended to me instead of doing a whole new book, why not add two chapters to Frontman, so I’m thinking about that, but I do have another book in me and I would like to write a true textbook for my class and call it “Stage Presence.” I would still like to use Frontman in the class, but I think there could be a textbook that takes it week by week – it’s a 14 week course and I think there could be a 14 chapter book called “Stage Presence.”
If somebody else had the idea to do this kind of class in other universities, it seems to me that Frontman would have to be used as part of that quintessential reading because it is – as someone who is older – wishes he had that kind of guidebook, you know?
Thank you. It’s written for someone in their 20’s; it’s really written as a sort-of help; like “okay, look, this is what happened to me” (laughing). “And if I can help you, let me.”
But the beauty of your book is – I have to say (laughing) – there are no violent deaths or lawsuits… (both laugh) It’s a wonderful, positive story and it shows you can maintain your sanity and your dignity and your musical integrity all rolled into one, so having said that…
Thank you for saying that.
…let’s talk about Cool Blue Halo 25, which was a momentous occasion. It was a great night of music; it was a celebration on every possible level… Where was the seed planted to revisit it and have everybody come back and re-do this…
It was a wonderful idea, but it wasn’t my idea. There’s a gentleman, who at the time that he asked me to do this, was the head of the Country Music Network, CMT, and he had also been the president, I believe, if that was the right title, at Yahoo Music – he was the head of Yahoo Music. His name is Jay Frank. I love Jay. Now he’s a fan of the Cool Blue Halo album and loved it. And he’d been in touch with me, I think via Facebook, a few years ago, about the album – asking me about it. And of course I was happy to talk about it with him.
Then fast forward – a little bit – to SXSW in 2010, where I was performing, promoting the Glow album. And I was performing there with Alejandro Escovedo, who I perform with a lot; I love working with Alejandro. And when I got backstage, Jay Frank was there to introduce himself to me. He asked me what I was doing for the 25th anniversary of Cool Blue Halo, which was coming up in 2012. And I absolutely was – for one thing – stunned that it had been 25 years because I don’t really keep track of time; I don’t really look at my watch that much (both burst into laughter); let me put it that way. And as you know from Frontman, one of my favorite quotes from that book is “time is a myth.” So I don’t really say “well, that was 20 years ago or 25 years ago” – I don’t really think about it that way. If I did, it would be – it sometimes would scare me how much time passes because time does pass quickly.
So I hadn’t dwelled on that it was 25 years and I hadn’t really thought about celebrating the birthday of an album. But it was a beautiful question. “So what are you going to do to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of Cool Blue Halo?” – that’s exactly what he said to me. And I was silent for a moment – which is unlike me – and I thought, “I don’t know. What do you have in mind?” and he says he had the idea and told me about recreating it now, in a venue in New York, with the original players. That was the genesis of it. I loved the idea; I love the players. I still work with Nick Celeste and I always have; and Jane Scarpantoni on cello – after the original album – we toured for at least two years together on just that album… And then we toured when Primal Dream came out; my next album in 1990.
But after that, so many people wanted her to play with them, mostly – to be honest – contacting me to get her phone number and it was quite okay, I gave them her phone number. But because of that – because of my generosity of giving her phone number out (laughing) – I hardly worked with her anymore because she was always out on the road. She was on the road with Lou Reed, Bob Mould, with the Indigo Girls, with – you name it, she was on the road with them. Really – literally – you name it. She wasn’t around, so I worked with different players; other cello players. I hadn’t really been reunited with her until I played Carnegie Hall in 2008 with the Frontman show. So I thought well, that’ll be cool to get Jane back and Valerie, who’s been a percussionist on SNL on television every Saturday night for the last 18 years and was the musical director or one of the musical directors of The Lion King on Broadway; she got really locked into that world and I couldn’t tour much with her, either. So how cool to bring those two girls back with Nick and me and do the show. And then I thought, well what about Tony Visconti who’d just produced my new album, on bass on “The Man Who Sold The World,” because he played on the original Bowie version and produced it. And what about some great improvisational keyboard player? Because we really didn’t have many keyboards on Cool Blue Halo. And I thought “what about Garth Hudson? Would he do it?”
That’s an inspired choice.
It’s like “Garth Hudson – how awesome.” You know, I remember watching – I always loved the Band; they transcended everything and I remember watching him in The Last Waltz and thinking “gee, it would be so cool – he uses all every single key on the keyboard.” So I thought that would be cool. I called Garth; I mean everyone said “yes” – we had that huge band together. And then Rob Norris from the Bongos on bass on the songs Tony did not play on, and Richard Kerris on the drumkit which we never used on Cool Blue Halo. But by expanding the show to the additional songs after I’d done Cool Blue Halo – we had a lot of material to work with. And Richard Kerris has been an interesting character; he’s a genius – he was at Apple Computers and almost every technology company you can think of in the last 20 years but also I played at his high school; the earliest Bongos show I think was played at Richard Kerris’ high school and we’ve been friends ever since and to have him come down and play drums on this was a real cool thing.
You know, it just all came together and it was a thrill – it wasn’t really my idea but I did roll with it and run with it. I brought Matthew Billy, who I’ve been working with a lot to produce the album. I didn’t want to produce it – I just wanted to play; I just wanted to play and sing. And I think it’s my best album. In many ways, I think this 25th Anniversary of Cool Blue Halo – a lot of it comes together for me on this album. Material-wise it covers pretty much my whole life of music because we added those extra songs; and then performance-wise – I think – I sing them with more meaning. When I wrote the original Cool Blue Halo songs, I hadn’t really experienced half the stuff I was singing about. I mean the kind of love affairs that are alluded to on Cool Blue Halo had not really occurred for me yet. The “Tangled in Your Web” character had not happened yet. “I Belong to Me,” when I first sang it, was really about my independence from the Bongos. When I sing it now, it’s about independence from…everything.
It’s a recurring theme; it’s a great, personal theme song.
Thank you – and you see how the theme changes. At the time “I Belong to Me” was “I love you but I’ve got to go on my own” and now “I love you but I’ve got to go on my own” is not necessarily about leaving the band. So now, every song now has a different and more layered meaning. Because of that – it’s my favorite album I’ve ever made.
Having been at that show – and coming from the audience perspective – I can tell you that it was one of the most passionate performances I’ve ever seen anybody – and I’m talking about anybody – ever do. And I think that showed right there the sheer beauty of the songs and the way you deliver them to the audience. You made a room that’s fairly sizeable very small and very intimate…
Thank you – thank you…
…Cool Blue Halo itself is a very warm album – the original version. This one’s even warmer.
It is warmer.
You know, there is such a sense of personal – and anyone who was there – I am more than sure – or who has since gotten the album version of it – has realized that these songs definitely speak to us as individuals; it’s not just the performer to the audience. That these songs all do have a great deal of meaning and if we had them when they first came out and now we’ve lived a life since it first came out, there’s even greater meaning and depth. And that I think that’s one of the greatest strengths of this record – plus, it’s a hell of a lot of fun! (both laughing)
It is fun! It’s a really fun record. As serious as it gets, it’s a real fun album, I think.
And of course, you had to be there to see the look on everyone’s faces…
But it’s on the concert film!…
…which of course, people have to get this; you have to add this to the collection!
And that’s not just a plug, mind you; that’s coming from somebody who’s been there. You see the joy in everyone’s faces and there’s really no way to put that into words properly, you know? The connection is there; the band is having fun – the audience is having fun and everybody’s enjoying it. And that is the power of not only a great performance but great, timeless music.
To go back and hear Cool Blue Halo – the original, which sounds just indescribable now; it sounds so – there’s just such a greater power to it.
Thank you! We worked really hard on the re-mastering. It was a major re-mastering process.
Talk about that for a bit because the original version that I have on CD, and it was hard to get those Passport CD’s since they were out very briefly – it’s very thin sounding, unfortunately.
Yeah, that was the analog-to-digital converters we had back in 1987, which were inferior. And that was mastered by a great mastering engineer, Greg Calbi, originally. So there’s no discredit to him – we did the best we could with what we were able to do but that was a fairly early CD. That album was mixed for vinyl, really. There are album copies and there are cassette copies – that came out on three formats. When you mixed for vinyl, there are certain things that you did; knowing that there was surface noise; there was potential for skips… There were things that we did for vinyl mixing that are much different than we do for digital reproduction.
I had to restrain some of the drums – we didn’t; I mean the engineer, Greg Calbi, had to restrain some of the tympani hits on the original because he was afraid that sound would cause a skip; that her drums were so loud at certain spots on the original recording; that’s one thing. Secondly, the cello was the bass on that record. I was never able to really get it to have the low end I wanted on the original on the vinyl or early CD versions for some reason. Thirdly, when it was transferred from tape to digital code to make a CD, the converters that converted that from one to the other were not as refined as we have now.
There were major shifts in the late ‘90’s and early 2000’s – major, major, major shifts where they captured more sound quality elements than the early CD converters did. Early CD’s in general don’t sound that good. Listen to the early – the first Beatles CDs – they’re very thin; they sound nothing like the vinyl and it gave people a bad feeling – “okay, a CD is not as good as vinyl” because the conversion process was not very good. Well – since then, whatever company that – I keep thinking it was Apogee, started creating very high end converters where you could transfer analog to digital and it didn’t lose anything – or very little. Or less – much less, let’s say. And now we have those.
So now of course when we transfer – for one thing, I got the original tapes back; they were in my house anyway so it was no big deal – I have all my master tapes. So in my library of tapes, I pulled out the original tape of Cool Blue Halo, the ½ inch analog tape, which I put in my backpack in 1987, when I left the studio, okay; I always take my tapes home. We found that the tapes didn’t play. This is in the documentary, though – you can watch this happen in real time in the documentary that comes with the album – we put the tape on; we tested it – we put “Numbers With Wings” on and as soon as we put it on, it went “rrrrrrrrrrr” (slowing down noise) and stops because the tape becomes gummy – I’ll explain why in a second – the tape had become gummy and would not play against the tape heads – it just slowed it down into this complete grinding stop. The reason – and I promised you I would tell you (both laughing) – is because in the ’80’s, the tape company we used, Ampex, was using a tapestock that was environmentally-friendly but didn’t have certain elements in it, because of that, which preserved it. This was only a certain little window of time in the ‘80’s when this was made. It was like environmentally-correct audio tape that destroyed within seven years.
So… we didn’t know what to do – nobody knew what to do at first when this was happening – when they were trying to re-master whatever ‘80’s artists – when they would try to re-master 400 albums to make CDs, they found that none of them played. So they wrote to Ampex and said “what do we do? Your tapes are shit; they don’t work.” and Ampex had to scamper to come up with an idea like “how do we save these tapes” and they found that putting them in a convection oven at 180 degrees for a certain number of hours, they would dry enough so the gumminess would go away and you could play the tapes for a short window of time. And so we had to do that with these tapes. Following that instruction, we baked them in a convection oven; they were removed from the oven – it looks like – they’re on a cookie tray; looks like a cookie tray – you pull them out and put them on the machine when they cool – and they played perfectly. Not only perfectly, but sounding fantastic.
How long was your window of time to get them transferred?
You’re supposed to do it within 12 hours of doing that, you’re supposed to play it within 12 hours; they tell me that it lasts longer than that. But we were pretty quick; the next day – we let it cool and the next day we mastered and transferred everything to digital and it sounded fantastic; I mean really fat. ‘Cause that’s how that record was originally meant to sound. Like the cello is meant to be boomingly fat. And the drums – all the stuff that we wanted – now we could do.
Case and point – “Cry Baby Cry” – the cello comes in – you get shivers…
…it goes right into you.
It’s beautiful; it’s really beautiful. That’s how I heard it in the studio – we used Unique Studios in Times Square in ’87 on a weekend – on the 4th of July weekend in 1987, when we were mixing Cool Blue Halo. I only had two days to mix it; side one one day and side two the next day. This was on an indie label called Passport; they didn’t have the budget for me to go in for my usual months (laughing) to the studio. So they gave us – we recorded the album in one night and I had two days to go mix it. It was the 4th of July weekend and Madonna was in the other room, cranking out some hit and I was in the other room doing Cool Blue Halo. And this is how it sounded to me there and I had not heard that since then, so it was a real thrill to get the same sound – and now to be able to share that with the people who buy the album to hear it the way I heard it in the studio, you know?
Well, congratulations on both.
The first one was a masterpiece. It’s an absolute – what you could consider a modern classic…
…but the new one is such a wonderful counterpiece to it. You know, it’s the perfect pair of bookends.
Thanks – I feel that. I feel that they are kind of like my bookends. I love that it’s the same material; I didn’t think I would like that – it’s like a study in a person, in a way. You know – somewhere in the middle is me as a person. Somewhere between Cool Blue Halo 1 and 2 is a life.
And quite a storied musical career with some amazing, amazing pieces of music. It’s always struck me that the way you’ve always approached it is you might look back a little bit to see where you had just been to get to that next point. But it’s always been a progression, going up and up and up. Do you see it that way at all? You look back from Clouds Over Eden, you look over your shoulder at Primal Dream – you know, “okay, I was there so now I’m going here”…
Yeah, that’s exactly how – I always thought of Cool Blue Halo, Primal Dream and Clouds Over Eden as definitely three steps. It’s almost like Cool Blue Halo is an adolescence; a post-teenage exploration of emotions (laughs)…
The journey starts there.
And then Primal Dream – the key word is not “primal” but “prime”; and I thought of it as a boy or man – reaching his mid-20s, kind of what’s considered a prime. I don’t believe in that now because I think a prime could be at any time of your life. But at the time I was thinking something like reaching a maturity. Let’s put it that way – reaching a maturity on Primal Dream.
And on Clouds Over Eden, it was a look at what had been lost. That album was really, truly about the loss of two men in my life; my father and my best friend, Nicholas Schaffner, who had just recently died and was a real shock to me. And that album is about loss; it’s about dealing with loss. And it’s about growing up. If you look back on those songs; even “Miss Jean” is a real person and somebody who I grew up with… “Within These Walls” – that was written on the walls of the hospital, when I’d go visit Nicholas in the hospital. There was a cornerstone at the hospital that said, “within these walls are the helpers of mankind”; it was from a phrase at the hospital when I’d visit him everyday. You know, that’s a “real” album; that’s like the real deal. And there was no denying the growth that was happening to me because I had to realize my losses on Clouds Over Eden.
The trick about that album is that I didn’t want it to be a sad album. I wanted to accept that; I wanted to be able to accept all those changes. But yeah, in answer to your question; I’m sorry to be long-winded on that one but the answer is yes, Cool Blue Halo, Primal Dream and Clouds Over Eden were a trilogy that I couldn’t really follow up for many years. I couldn’t continue; I had to stop after that one. The only thing that came out for a long time was the Between Heaven and Cello CD, only Europe, which was just Jane Scarpantoni and me performing mostly at Fez in New York, which was a club at the time. And that album was made – it’s a live album – and it was really made for the Germany/Austria/Switzerland market because I was doing a tour there. But I didn’t do a studio album after Clouds Over Eden until 2010, when I made Glow.
But I had made a mini-full circle on my trilogy that I just described. It was very hard for me to say anything after Clouds Over Eden. Also, it was an emotional process to make that album because my losses were happening as I was recording. Those two main losses and the looking back was all happening in real time. So that album took a lot out of me to make and I couldn’t go back in the studio for a while. That’s when I really started producing again. I was really happy to get in the studio and work with other people’s torture (laughing). I’d had enough torture for the moment; I was really happy to go in and make an album with Johnny Rogers; I love working with him – we made an album called Box of Photographs; you know, very different types of albums; each different. I made an album with Jenni Muldaur; she’s great – she’s the daughter of Geoff and Maria Muldaur – we did a great little album called Angry Elves; that was her punk band at the time. It was a sort-of under the radar kind of indie record but I loved it. I worked with this guy called Lach, who sort-of created the anti-folk scene. We did three albums with Lach; really rough acoustic punk; I love it. You know, one after the other. I worked with so many artists during that period but not my own music until 2010.
And then Glow comes out and it’s an unbelievably upbeat, light…
Right, well, that’s the exact…
It almost continues the theme even though there’s this span of time…
Yes, I know, I know…
Suddenly it’s a case of “I’ve been through the sadness; I’ve seen the darker side of things and I’m here to say it’s alright.”
…there’s a glow.
“Glow” is a theme song.
Thank you. “Glow” is one of my favorites that I’ve ever done. The whole album. For one thing, I’ve always wanted to work with Tony Visconti ever since I was about 13 years old, maybe 12, when I would see his name on the T. Rex records that I loved. And his name sounded Italian to me and had me thinking “you don’t have to be English to be a producer” (laughing). “You don’t have to be from England! You can be Italian from Brooklyn!” And I loved Tony’s work so much – from Badfinger on – he worked with all the artists I loved, so what a thrill to meet him, work with him, write songs with him – we’ve worked together for many years. Glow came out in 2010 but we really started it before. We were collecting those songs one by one over a period of five years or so. Four years, maybe? A long time. And we put them all together to make Glow.
And, again, yes, the theme is about light. You know, its glow. You know, it’s “hey, if you let the darkness go, everything glows.” That came to me when I was walking to the studio one day – not working myself but with Johnny Rogers, I think – I was walking to the studio and that whole song wrote itself while I was walking. I’d gotten to the studio and I’d just gotten my new Les Paul digital guitar and I was at Shelter Island Sound where I do a lot of recording and I told Steve “before Johnny gets here, I gotta record this song really fast!” and I wasn’t with Tony that day because I was just going to do another session. So we laid down just the guitar for “Glow” and I sang it. And that was the basic track we used for “Glow.” I’d just written it; I didn’t even have a bridge – I made up the bridge on the spot – the “you’re not alone, you’re not alone” – that just came to me when we were doing the track. I was trying to hurry and get a song down before my artist got there!
That seems to happen with you a lot, though. You have that wonderful luck that the songs write themselves.
You know what – because they usually simmer for a little while before I record; they usually simmer in different ways. Like that song was simmering while I was walking and then I got in there and I had the pressure of the red light coming on to record; I wrote the bridge on the spot; I remember Steve – the engineer, Steve Addabo – said “where did that come from” and I said “I have no idea.” But we kept it – and I think I kept that vocal. It was the main vocal on that song. And that was done just walking in off the street. In fact, I called him while I was walking, on my iPhone – I said “Steve, I’ve got a song. Get the mikes set up; I wanna walk in and record it. I wanna just record it really fast because then Johnny’s gonna get here and we’ve gotta start making this album so I gotta get this done before I start the next thing.” (laughs) And that’s how quickly I wrote “Glow.” And I plugged in my guitar – and that’s the guitar track – where every string goes to its own channel. And then I doubled it. So there are 12 tracks of guitars and each string was on its own track. I finished that at Skywalker Sound.
I had the original Skywalker mix…
Yeah, yeah, yeah! We refined it a little bit because I did it so quickly. So on the album version, I may have refined it a little bit or done an alternate mix. But it’s basically what I just described to you. It came out of the guitar to a click track and then we went to Skywalker and did the rest.
Again, it starts with the whole youthful theme, too. It’s one set album about growing up – it starts with “Gravity’s Pull”…
Yeah! That’s right! Yes!
“I can fly”… And then comes “Glow” and…
I know! Yes!
…okay, here’s the peace; here’s the joy – I can go forward…
Yes! That’s what that album’s about. I’m so glad; I’m really happy you’re saying that, because that’s exactly what it’s about.
I saw enough of the shows between, I guess, 2004 up until the release, and I could see the progression of the album happening, and it was beautiful.
You could see it because I didn’t just do it all in one day; because I was working with other artists and producing in 2003, 2004 and 2005 I was doing those big shows – the Peggy Lee tributes; those were huge. So I kind of had to squeeze in and record and it really wasn’t every day. And then Tony really got so hot again as a producer; when we first started working together, he had a little more time. You know, I’d go to his house; we’d hang out and write songs – it was so leisurely. But then for both of us, it got super-busy. I started producing that show at the Hollywood Bowl, which was so huge and then he was doing Morrissey’s album – you know, he was still secretly working with Bowie whenever they could. And he did one album after the other. Two albums for Alejandro; Tony is so prolific. Tony Visconti’s a miracle man – I can’t think of any other producer who’s been so prolific and so relevant with such current artists for so long. ‘Cause you know he started in 1968! Or ’67. Or before that, even! Because he produced the Badfinger stuff in ’68…
Did he produce them when they were The Iveys?
Yeah! And some of those tracks are on the first Badfinger album. And he worked with Joe Cocker on “With A Little Help From My Friends” – what year was that? I think he mixed that!
’69? Did he produce the first Tyrannosaurus Rex albums?
All the Tyrannosaurus Rex albums; all those until – through Zinc Alloy. He co-produced Zinc Alloy with Marc. So yeah, all the Tyrannosaurus Rex. He discovered them; he signed them. And of course, almost all the Bowie records, really. So I can’t think of any other producer. I mean, I want to say George Martin is the one who’s noted and I really think is the greatest pop producer in some ways. I think Tony has – I don’t want to ever say surpassed because I know what high regard Tony holds George Martin. So I won’t compare the two. But I will say that Tony has remained relevant for far longer than anyone I could think of as a producer.
George Martin is now retired, Arif Mardin is now deceased…
They’re all retired. Retired or gone. Tony’s still cranking amazing music out – he’s in the studio today in London. He does not stop and it’s such an inspiration to me. He’s so great and he’s so cool… Anyway – what a thrill to write the songs on Glow with him, as well as have him produce them. All the songs he produced on that, except “Girl,” which was a T. Rex song, which I insisted we do because I was at his house one day when the master tapes of Electric Warrior arrived for him to do a 5.1 surround mix. We put the tapes on; I said “Tony – this sounds amazing – we have to record one of these songs” and the one that we picked was “Girl” because on the original, it was just Marc and an acoustic guitar and a flugelhorn. So we wanted to make one – we said “what about if we put drums on it?” and we did our own version with the beat.
I hope you don’t mind my saying this but when I heard your version, I said “this has a very E.L.O. kind of production.”
Oh, that’s interesting! On “Girl”?
Yeah, when it kind of stops and the effects come in…
That was done – we had mellotrons – and it’s funny you mentioned of E.L.O.; that’s not who we were thinking of (laughing). We were thinking of – the track we were listening to that day was the band Air – do you know them, the French group?
We were listening to Air and some of the beats are from that feel… that chill kind of feel. (imitates laid back drum sound). It was a very chill kind of beat we were listening to. It wasn’t E.L.O. But I did love E.L.O. Tony and I both did songs on the E.L.O. tribute album.
You did that great version of “Showdown”…
Thank you! I love that – I love the way that came out. It was a real cool combination of players on that… Lisa Haney on cello; that was really thick harmonies on that one. And then I sang on his – “Mr. Blue Sky”; Tony’s track and I sang the backing vocals.
If I may take a step back into your previous life as a member of a band…
Ah! Oh sure… I forgot about that, yeah.
There are two unreleased albums by the Bongos. Is there any chance of them ever seeing the light of day?
Yeah, there are two of them. Yes, yes. Yeah, I think we’ll do that. The only thing is – is to get back into the… (laughs) all of these journeys are psychological. And it’s getting back into the… head… or the frame of mind we would have been in when those were made to really finish them properly. ‘Cause one of them is not really finished, you know? The record we were making in the Bahamas would require us to go back into the studio and really finish the mixes and finish it. To do it properly – it wouldn’t be just me.
It would probably be “okay guys, let’s go back into the studio and let’s finish that album that we started in 1985.” You see what I mean? There’s a psychological aspect to it that I’m not sure we want to face yet. Because it came at the time when the band was really in a very disruptive kind of… path of… breaking up. A path of destruction, you know? And for me, personally, Cool Blue Halo was the healing from that album; the unreleased album. Healing was making Cool Blue Halo for me. So to go back to the actual injury is a psychological trip that none of us have been willing to take yet. However, I think we will.
It was called Phantom Train, which was a very symbolic title. A lot of the lyrics discuss and talk about the idea of things sort of in a state of disarray and disruption. With all that said, I think it was some of our best work. The first song on the new Cool Blue Halo 25th Anniversary, “My Wildest Dreams” is from that album. I just had to do it somewhere; I mean, I had this song, you know, and I had never played it anywhere! And I notably do it all by myself on that album because I didn’t want to have any of the musicians because I just wanted to go out there and sing that by myself for a particular reason. But I think we will visit it; I just don’t know exactly when; maybe within the year – maybe in ten years! But I think we will do it.
Then there’s a live album – I can’t even tell you the title; it’s so good! It was made for RCA Records but we never put it out because we left RCA. And we ended up owning the tapes and it’s brilliant and I absolutely love it. The band owns the rights to both albums so we can put them out. It’s just a matter of when. The live album captures the Bongos at a, I think, live peak. Even though we play everything so hard and fast, I do think it captures us at a peak in 1985 – same year – both albums were made in the same year – we were performing live at the Jersey Shore, which was one of our wildest audiences you could ever imagine. On Memorial Day weekend, 1985, I’m telling you – this was a legendary night. And I… promise you that. And we captured it on a great 24 track analog recording; same truck that was used to record Cool Blue Halo two years later, which was the Effanel truck, which was fantastic – a rolling recording studio. Everything you could ever want in a recording studio in a truck. And we had it outside the venue, recording this live album.
Someday that will come out. I love it. It’s really – it’s the Bongos’ extreme album, I would say; it’s the most extreme. It’s Bongo to the nth degree; Bongo to the max. It’s like you really get the whole Bongos experience on that live album. Steve Scales – we loved Talking Heads at the time when they did their “Stop Making Sense” movie and Steve Scales who was the conga player from that album – we asked him to play with us on that whole tour so we have so many drums going on – on the live album because it was Steve and Frank on drums. He had congas but he also had all these tom-toms… It was like a wall of drums… The audience went nuts; I’m telling you… I think there was a girl ripping my boots off; like in the front row – I was wearing combat boots – she was actually attacking me; she was ripping them apart while I was wearing them – while I was singing. All of us were being attacked during the making of that album. (both laughing) That’s how rowdy – talk about “Jersey Shore”? Need I say more? I mean really, it was Jersey Shore mania. And I loved it. But that’s the unreleased Bongos albums.
It was a great era for us to have the opportunity to be the Bongos. We were very fortunate; we were signed within a few months of being together – we were signed to the British label, Fetish Records. And I love the records we made with them. And then that label was so gracious to let us move to RCA when we had an offer from them. They didn’t say – you know those nightmare stories – “we own The Bongos” – we had no such restrictions. And we were able to sign to a major label and we took criticism for it but that was idiotic because – just because the “indie” thing was happening – we had done “indie”; we took it as far as we possibly could.
Now some bands, like R.E.M., took it further and I think they did brilliantly with it. But Rob and I had our fill of trying to take care of all the business, put out the records, to take it to the stores, to get it on the radio – we had had our fill of being indie at that moment. We were like pioneers of that. We had started a local scene in Hoboken – I’m sorry to tell you – we started a local scene with Glenn Morrow who now runs Bar/None Records, who then put out Glow. But I mean – another full circle. We did start a scene and we had to keep it going with our own music and it was really hard doing 300 shows a year and trying to do our own marketing and stuff… So when RCA wanted to help us and sign us and pay us – how could we say no? When we were on Fetish Records, we had to run the American division of that label. Rob and I were the ones making sure it worked; that we had the pressings done, that we had the artwork printed at the right place and time – we couldn’t really do it anymore; we weren’t even here, we were on the road. So when a label wanted to do it, we went with that label. Plus, we liked the RCA logo. We wanted to be on a classic label. So I don’t deny it and any “indie” person who criticized us is out of line.
Everyone’s a critic.
Everyone is a critic (laughing). And we were thrilled to be on RCA. We were on the same label as Bowie and Elvis and Lou Reed. It was a great time for us as kids to be signed to a big label like that.
Hey, RCA distributed Colgems and Michael Nesmith’s first solo albums, so…
That’s right! RCA was a cool label – and we knew it wasn’t the hippest label, like Warmer Brothers might have been hipper since they’d signed the B-52’s and they had more New Wave acts than RCA. We still liked RCA; you know in my book I talk about how we had offers from Warner Brothers and RCA. We asked our lawyer at the time and maybe his answer wasn’t correct – we said “which one should we sign with?” and he said “really guys, just flip a coin.” And we flipped a coin and Warner Brothers won, so we signed with RCA.
I’m going to ask you a very pedestrian question…
What does Richard Barone, the person, listen to nowadays – just for the sake of listening?
I listen to a lot of things – and it covers – I don’t really listen to one era. I really do like to jump around a lot. The other night I was up until – I don’t have to tell you – I stay up at night a lot and Matthew and I listen to a lot of music together – he’s an engineer – and we like to listen to how records are made. It’s like stream-of-consciousness listening. He’s at Sony Records now and he gets everything before it comes out. And then we might switch on the top-40 radio station or search randomly on Spotify. Then we’ll be jumping back to the Traveling Wilburys. And I just posted that on my Facebook page today because I listened to it and thought “what a beautiful Jeff Lynne production on “Handle With Care.” What a beautiful sound that is.” At the time, I liked and appreciate who was in it – and I loved Roy Orbison – and that led to an entire evening of listening to Roy Orbison records. Or songs that were covered – you know, “let’s listen to the other versions of “Love Hurts.” And then it’s the Everly Brothers. So I like stream-of-consciousness listening.
I do this for a few reasons – one is because I enjoy it. I like to listen for enjoyment, still. But also, it’s educational for me. It’s easier for me if I listen in this way because if you ask me what I listen to, for me to say one thing would be a lie because I listen to everything and secondly, by listening in this sort of way, one listen leads to another. I was up until 11 in the morning listening to records, by the way, non-stop – without the aid of drugs (grinning and trying not to laugh, but failing) – and went into the studio that day to record something… later that day. I like to listen to music that way to find a way for my own music and productions to not be beholden to any one particular era or style.
So I tend to balance my listening – like I’ll listen to the Elvis “Sun Sessions” and then I’ll listen to Pink. I like to make the connections in pop music between old and new. And maybe have a laugh at some of the ones if they don’t quite nail it. But often, I like what people are doing. Like Lady Gaga. I like “Poker Face” by her. I heard that one in a cab – the guy was going 100 miles an hour – I thought “why are you killing me?” – and “Poker Face” came on; it was like a magical New York night for some reason. We’re plowing through the city, hitting every green light and the guy’s going really fast and I was thinking “how did they get that drum sound and why is it so dry and how is this so crunchy?” I’d heard something new and I thought “whoever this is is going to be huge” and again, I was with Matthew that night and I was said “I don’t know who this artist is; I’ve never heard this before, but this is the next big thing.”
So it’s your fault, in other words.
Yeah. But she’s a student from NYU so of course, I support her. But I will say I’m not necessarily a big fan; I do like certain things – I do like that record, I thought that’s a really crunchy record. And I like pop music that can grab me in that way. I like to be surprised by pop; I like to have some surprises in it.
I really love a great hook; I’m truly a sucker for a great hook on a record – I just love it. I don’t know what style it’s gonna be; when it has a chorus that grabs me, I’m just down with it. So when I listen to music, I usually jump around decades – I really have respect for the classics. I have a deep, maybe overriding, maybe a more than necessary respect for classic power pop. But… I try to be open so that I can blend some other things in there so that whatever I do now doesn’t try to sound imitative.
So like with artists I’m producing – as I was saying with Chris Duggan – as much as I will play “No Matter What” for him, I make sure the drum sounds are really pretty cutting edge/contemporary because I want it to be able to be on the radio. And I want radio stations, when they get this track, when we put it out – he’s that kind of artist; he’s a contemporary artist – I want to make sure he has every chance to get on the radio. But with that said, we do it in ways which are unique and classic and I’m very happy with that. That’s why I listen to such a variety of music all the time. I rarely get too stuck in one era. Even though lately I’ve been listening to Sinatra, you may know from my Facebook post, I got a new turntable last week that has an iPhone dock on it (both start laughing)… I know – the turntable has an iPhone dock on it – I can rip vinyl right to my phone – without any…
Yeah, you slam it on there and you can put it on your phone. So because of that, I’ve been digging up some old vinyl – I have at least 3000 albums in my apartment – vinyl albums – not to mention singles. And one of the albums I pulled out was Sinatra doing the songs of Jobim – he does “The Girl From Ipanema” and on vinyl it’s so beautiful, really great. And I love getting into that kind of stuff, where you had really amazing arrangers like Nelson Riddle – I love records with symphonic string arrangements – I love symphonic pop, let’s put it that way. So I love hearing on vinyl, especially, records with a full string section. Whenever I can; whenever I have the budget for a record, I love to have a nice, big string section on there, you know what I mean? So that’s what I like to listen to. In a nutshell – by my standards – that’s what I listen to: everything.
Apart from my incredible gratitude for everything, my last question will be another pedestrian one… what next? For your next studio album…
I’m really excited about my next studio album. It’s been on my mind ever since we wrapped up the final mixes of the Cool Blue Halo 25th Anniversary. I think I’m going to do a little bit of traveling; I may do some recording in Europe – I don’t think I’m going to do the whole album in the United States. I’d like to do some things in Sweden; maybe go back to England – I haven’t recorded in England in a long time. In fact, one of the unreleased tracks from Clouds Over Eden was mixed in London – that ended up on my Collection – An Embarrassment Of Richard album – “Don’t Open ‘Til Doomsday” – I don’t know if you know that track.
You very kindly gave me a copy of the CD at Joe’s Pub, yes. (both laughing)
Oh, good, good. That track was the last time I mixed in London. I’d like to go back and do some work there because there’s a different mentality in different countries in how you mix and how the studios sound; even though I already have some tracks recorded. Three tracks I did with Tony Visconti that were outtakes from Glow that I’d like to include on my next album because they were not really outtakes; they were just not in the theme of Glow.
Would “Guru” be one of them?
“Guru” was with Steve Rosenthal. And I love that one, so that could also be on the album. I have some great tracks. And again – because the way I listen to music and the way I see it, they don’t sound like they’d been done at any particular time. I’d like to add them as bonus tracks on my next album. There’s at least three or four that didn’t make it to Glow that should make it somewhere and I want to put those on the next album.
Maybe do a Glow Deluxe…
I thought about the Glow Deluxe but the theme of Glow is so self-contained.
Mmmmm, that makes sense.
They were Glenn Morrow’s suggestions – this was not just me, this was the label – Glenn picked the songs for Glow. And the reason is exactly what you talked about – those were the theme; the reason they hold together – we picked those. The ones that were a little off the beaten path of that theme did not make it on the album. Not because they weren’t hot tracks.
They didn’t fit the chapters of the story.
RB: They didn’t fit the chapters and Glenn went through them and said “You know, this one is cool but it doesn’t really fit.” This makes me feel good because I feel like I’ve got a starting point already for my next album. These tracks – I think there’s a good diversity; I think the next album will have a wider range of moods, recorded in a wider range of studios. So one track done in Sweden, one track in Holland – I plan to spend some time in Amsterdam in the summer, after this semester at NYU ends – so I think I’ll travel a bit and record as I travel.
It’s going to be a musical travelogue.
It is. And I haven’t really done that before. You know Electric Warrior was done when T. Rex was on the road; it was done in New York, London, L.A…
The Stones did a lot of that with those early records – Hollywood, at Chess, in London…
Yeah and I’ve never really done that before, so I’d like to explore that – moving around. Collecting the songs as I travel. So I think that’s going to be part of the next album process. And I think it’ll be pretty soon. The bonus tracks are already recorded so now it’s about recording the body of the album itself and I think I’m going to start in the summer. I debuted “God Understands” on Sirius XM during the show that I did for “The Loft” and that’ll be on the next album; I’d like to record that as a duet with someone – I have someone in mind for that. I have quite a nice batch of new songs. Based on relationship issues; things that have happened over the last couple years that I think are important for me to express.