Music Interviews

Van Dyke Parks: “I have always sweated bullets. I have to work hard. I’m not that talented, I’m admitting this” – Interview

Van Dyke Parks

Van Dyke Parks

“I want to confess something to you,” says legendary producer and arranger Van Dyke Parks, straight on to the front foot when we come to call. It’s quite an achievement given the earliness of the Californian hour. “I’m just terrified of misquotation – almost as much as quotation. Accuracy is almost as frightening.”

He is talking about his request that our interview be recorded and sent over for his stamp of approval. “Recently I did an interview with a Brit and I talked about how Brian Wilson was forced into retirement from Smile. I read the print that was emailed to me, and it said how Brian Wilson was ‘in a forest of retirement’, and I just died because one or two of those in an article can turn away the most patient.”

He is a polite and exceptionally eloquent interviewee, his voice the sort that could easily grace a lengthy radio programme as he discusses his latest project, a series of singles with accompanying artwork from a major artist. “It’s important to note that the works that have been done for these singles are not commissioned – they are given to me to use for these singles, and I’m absolutely floored by my chutzpah. How about a Yiddish word there. Let the motto be ‘Think Yiddish, speak British!'”

He reflects further. “Two weeks ago I was scanned for two life-size statues that will be called ‘Side A’ and ‘Side B’. They’re being done by a celebrated artist whose name is Charles Ray, a sculptor. He will take a photograph of those statues.” He laughs softly. “He will then take a picture of those statues of Van Dyke Parks, and then I will get a picture of the statues on my single. Isn’t that exciting? It’s absolutely astonishing!”

“I’m just terrified of misquotation – almost as much as quotation. Accuracy is almost as frightening” – Van Dyke Parks on the perils of interviews

At this point it is proving more beneficial to listen to Van Dyke rather than ask questions. “I think what it is, it’s not anybody’s attempt to flatter me, but there are a sea of people, in music and the visual arts, that want to connect, and can’t really find a way to finance that, a market to accommodate it, but people make these things that are beyond the movie musical and the hot album. I just had the nerve to act and the door opened.”

The juxtaposition of Van Dyke’s music and visual art is perhaps a natural one, given the colourful nature of the former. “I guess it’s true. Guilty as charged!” he confesses. “It’s music that attempts to entertain and foster synaesthetic relationships, and that happens naturally to people. Colours are sometimes associated with odours. A lilac, for example, always seems to be absinthian or liquorice. It’s amazing that the great composers never discussed this with each other, because it’s so personal. It’s almost like confessing to a madness to be so synaesthetically challenged, or afflicted. The musical keys are all ascribed by one composer or another to colours. For Tchaikovsky A flat was purple, or Beethoven opined that G was orange, and it turned out that Mozart had already had the same thought. I must confess I had forgotten what I had learned about all this, the corrobative qualities of synaesthetics”.

Does Van Dyke reflect classical music in the way he writes for orchestra? “Well I would like to think so,” he says warmly. “To tell you the truth I really would. I have no delusions of grandeur. When I think about classical music the term only helps me sort things out, that is to know that anything in that definition is something of great stature. Nothing more specific than that. So, important music to me is classical music. It’s also baroque” – he uses the American pronunciation – “but it ain’t bent! I don’t put myself in that league but I would like to think my work has such durability that it lives beyond my own self-insistence. It would be wonderful to think that it has some durable force.”

Is this a factor in his thinking as he approaches 70? “I don’t think so,” comes the instinctive response. “In 1963 I started with my first job, working on the Bare Necessities. I was not old enough to vote, but I was old enough to get a job as an arranger. That has turned out to be my hallmark, arranging, but it is a strange thing – I have said this before but I will say it again – that I find, to my shock and awe, that that is the way I have been cast, as an arranger. In doing that, at the age of 68, I’m not legitimate. Neither am I associated with the street, but it’s this wanting to bring roots into the parlour, that is my real ambition.”

“I would like to think my work has such durability that it lives beyond my own self-insistence. It would be wonderful to think that it has some durable force” – Van Dyke Parks

He qualifies his statement somewhat. “I wasn’t impressed with folk rock, but I am impressed with folk. My favourite British musician, for example, if I’m pressed to name one, is Martin Carthy. Nothing more exemplary or beautiful has ever come out of England than the works of Martin Carthy. They protect and define England. So I must admit that is my secret love. It’s the street sensibility, the roots, that I love, and then to try to find a way to bring that sensibility into an elitism of high society. Once I got to work for Martin’s daughter Eliza Carthy, and she said in the bridge of a song: ‘Beautiful people are boring’. I thought that was such a great line.

“So I try to bring that roots sensibility into the parlour,” he says, “but to me that is not a grandiose musical thing. It hasn’t given me access to the honourees in both departments. I have no cachet. My glory is in trying to do that. It is not at all original, and it is on a small scale. When you asked if I had any influences, the answer is Percy Grainger, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Delius, Smetana, Dvok – the guys that bring it from the streets. That’s what really interests me. I’ve always wondered at that. People have done that so well, but I like to bring it in to song form, and it’s the song form that is my gig.”

Has he ever considered an English folk project? “You know something; the truth is once I got a job to do a movie score of Oliver Twist. I went back and referred to musical literature, went back to learn river names and so forth. This was really beautiful. I am more Steeleye Span than Fairport Convention, and I think that’s because of the power of things, like torque in reverse. It’s when you really go back and lug something forward, maybe without the aid of a drum set that was invented in New Orleans, if you just leave that alone for a second and study the real rhythms inherent in all of this.”

He gives an example. “Music of the Olden Tyme is the precious volume of this – I have two volumes, and it’s not enough. It’s beyond parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme to be honest. As a matter of fact it tells you how much Henry VIII paid to have a man play the lute! It’s so deep and wonderful and of course I love this stuff! Going through airport security and all that tedium to land me in a place where this kind of music still exists is still a thrill.”

Van Dyke laughs, before considering his Union Chapel show, close on the horizon when we speak. “I look at it as an exorcism, and anyone who feels afflicted should come!” He laughs again. “I do not want to be – I will not be – obscene, in such a place. It would embarrass me terribly to see an empty seat. If people walk out in the course of the performance, that I can understand, but if the place is empty I’ll be just devastated!”

Realistically there is no chance of that of course – so moving on, he considers Englishness, and if that was a factor in his recent attraction to and production of The Shortwave Set‘s second album. “Yes, they were looking in all directions, and I liked that. They were very generous people to trust, because that was a track neither one of us had trod.

“I come into a job of such importance not knowing anything,” he explains, “and I wanted to finish that thought from earlier, the ‘Are you more careful now?’ implication. I have always sweated bullets – I have to work hard. I’m not that talented, I’m admitting this. For example at the Union Chapel I will be accompanied by a violin, a cello, and a bass. Each one of those musicians has perfect pitch; I do not. I’m gonna kill ’em! These people are too talented!” he laughs again, “but they’re willing to drop their standards. But I do work hard; I get a lot done through effort. I’m amazed that I’m still in touch with my hands, because they seem to be farther from my head every day!”

“I have always sweated bullets – I have to work hard. I’m not that talented, I’m admitting this” – Candid modesty from Van Dyke Parks

He resumes. “So it’s an athletic adventure! I have not included Percy Grainger’s Handel In The Strand, but I intend to do that sometime. I’m feathering the props, as it were, and I’m trying to establish the thought that I can come back. I would like to present the music I’ve done over my lifetime that I approve of, that meets my heightened expectations of myself, and celebrate these new 45s, which I’m going to flog at the ‘merch’ stand.”

His baritone richer, he explains why he refuses to ‘flog merch’, as he puts it. “It’s the collective work of quality people, people looking out not in, people who are masters of collaboration and individual value. It’s all very good the idea of these 45rpm stereo hi-fidelity singles, ‘hi-fidelity’ being the operative word. Those singles can also be downloaded, but as physical objects they can be the objects d’art. It reminds me of where I came from when sound was full and filled with nuance, the apogee of the analogue era – when I was a brunette. And that’s what I’m going to celebrate.”

The implication is that we fall back too much on studio trickery in modern recording, rather than making the most of instruments at our disposal. “Well yes, and for a while I didn’t want to believe it, I was wobbling – and everybody said that analogue, vinyl is beat. This digital brutality and the brittle nature of digital information. But time has borne it out that analogue is the animal, and we’ve been had bad, Dad, with this technological dead end. Nothing beats vinyl! I’m sorry, they’ll have to go back and work on that again. If they want to replace it they’ll have to find a way that can accommodate the subtleties of a grand piano. That’s the truth. It takes more work, but my heart is in the work.”

“Nothing beats vinyl! I’m sorry, they’ll have to go back and work on that again. If they want to replace it they’ll have to find a way that can accommodate the subtleties of a grand piano” – Van Dyke Parks on why analogue is best

He interrupts himself. “I didn’t answer many questions!” he suddenly realises, but his oration has been a constant delight. “If you don’t get at me harshly I’ll kill you! But didn’t you like the fact that you gave me an opportunity to talk about the real importance of the Carthy-Waterson clan, and what they mean to British culture? Because you see, it’s like Phil Ochs said in the song before he died many years ago – a man of great courage, uncorrupted. He said ‘I would be in exile now, but everywhere’s the same. I wanna go home.’ We are in a Mac world. I seek when I go somewhere and I find the Kentucky Fried state of mind, when I’m in that world.”

The stream of consciousness is unabated. “I look for the singular, regional value. I still look beyond the sagging wires, the Gap, the Starbucks. I look beyond that fog. And what is that fog? That fog, I regret to say, is American cultural hegemony. You may call it imperialism if you like. A kind of world that is rocking and rolling, without a mind of its own.” A very slight pause. “I’m sorry to be so dark,” he says. “It’s just sad to me. That’s why I take the effort to speak to the powers that be. If I have my power next time I come I’ll open for the Waterson-Carthy clan.”

A final question occurs – having participated in two Meltdown festivals, would he like to curate one? “Well, I would have to investigate because I don’t know stuff,” he says, perking up considerably. “What I would do would be to investigate those that have blooms where they grew. I would try to come as an enemy alien, outside the framework, with the power of inquiry, and a willingness to pursue.

“I would find those that are still speaking British,” he says determinedly. “I would put the hard ‘C’ in Celtic, even after that awful Norman thing happened! I look for Celtic music, and that’s what I would do in a Meltdown, get something solid out of it. That is how sold I am on the dances, the unexplored rhythms of olden times. It’s just as sexy as anything that came out of that Dark Continent, from the white man’s burdens. The rhythms of the British Isles are really something, as big as anything from New Orleans to me!”

In May 2011 Van Dyke Parks releases a series of six singles, beginning with Dreaming Of Paris, on Bananastan. The series features accompanying artwork for each 7″ from Ed Ruscha, Maus, Charles Ray, Frank Holmes and Sally Parks, his wife. More information on the composer can be found at his website.

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