We talk to the legendry Van Dyke Parks about his staggering career, ahead of his hotly anticipated performances in Barcelona and Madrid this autumn. An eloquent and entertaining interviewee; who can boast 65 years in the music industry.
Let’s not shy away from the fact: Van Dyke Parks is a living legend. Composer, producer, arranger, lyricist and performer he’s been actively engaged in music since his childhood in the 1950s. Over the last 65 years Parks has worked alongside a staggering array of artists. In fact, the profusion and quality of his collaborations verges on the ridiculous; from the Beach Boys, Frank Zappa and Ry Cooder to Joanna Newsom, Laurie Anderson and Rufus Wainwright. “ I have a knack at surrounding myself with greater ability” Parks graciously contends; an assertion I’ve no doubt would be fiercely refuted by his collaborators.
Yet his career has not been without its complications. His lyrics for the contentious Beach Boy’s album “SMiLE” were famously dismissed by Mike Love as " Acid Alliteration" for example, whilst he did not receive the attention he arguably deserved for his achievements until relatively recently. (“ My scars are my beauty marks” Parks quips, before adding “ aren't I beautiful?”).
We spoke to Van Dyke Parks following the triumphant re-release of his three classic solo albums via Bella Union – “Song Cycle”, “Discover America” and “Clang of the Yankee Reaper” – and ahead of his hotly anticipated performances in Barcelona and Madrid this autumn. He is an eloquent and entertaining interviewee, weaving witty observations with easy poeticism. Ultimately however, it is his closing words that most succinctly encapsulate his practical charm: “ ...and to you: salud, amor, y pesetas - y mucho tiempo para gastarío todo [health, love, and pesetas - and a lot of time to spend it all]”. Wise words, well said.
Over the years you have worked as a session musician, composer, producer, arranger, lyricist, and singer; do any of these roles take precedence for you? Would you define yourself as one first and foremost, or do you see them as too intertwined?
Fundamentally, all my work aims to improve the human condition, to elevate while entertaining. If life itself may be an Art, I'm an artist, foremost. I've found all those roles equally important in my humanistic aims. At the same time, I don't always view myself as qualified in any of these roles. I have such deep love and respect for all of them. My high standards test my limited talents! My progress is made through a work ethic that you just can't beat. So much is at stake. It is my heart that's in the work, aimed for a common good. Para los Otros! [For the Other!]
Can you pin-point a specific project that you are most proud of – or perhaps you feel is the most significant - and why?
My last 45 years reveal my good fortune, in arranging or producing the debut albums of many established artists. There are Randy Newman and Ry Cooder at the onset. I've never done strings more appealingly physical than on Ry's "One Meat Ball", or "Do Re Mi". In Randy's case, I simply persuaded him to do what I knew he could do – that is, to be called an artist. What do I possess that they all have used? It's my passion for mutual-empowerment. I aim to bring out the best in others, that they may define their lives artfully. If I do a good job (as a fine priest, psychiatrist, or plumber should do), I liberate that person, through what we learned together. Such a job takes real compassion. The beta male must be simpatico, to get anything done for the tribe. Record album production is the condensate of an ideal social opportunity. It's led me through a talent pool that staggers me, on reflection. It continues to this day. I have a knack at surrounding myself with greater ability, and bringing them focus.
"I know it's better to be interested than pretend to be interesting"
I understand your mother told you: “Van Dyke, I admire how you put your retirement before your career.” Do you agree with her? Can you pinpoint a moment in your career where you felt perhaps you were not receiving the recognition you deserved, alongside a moment where you felt suitably celebrated?
Vete a saber! [Who knows!] Yes, my mother noticed I wasn't being noticed in her time.
Yet, not being burdened with fame has given me a wide angle lens from the corner of the room. When one is just beyond the glare of a spot-lute, or 10 meters from centre-stage, much can be learned. Much can be delivered. Yet, anonymity has proven less profitable at the bank. I know it's better to be interested than pretend to be interesting. Although I've been maimed by many critics (and flattered by few), I remain true to myself, obsessed by just doing the right thing. My scars are my beauty marks. Aren't I beautiful?
Can you tell us a bit about your creative process? Is there a particular place/time you like to work?
I'm up before dawn. Tomar la palabra [Take the floor]. I'm up late at night. I live in a general field of semi-consciousness, and now approaching my 70th Christmas, I'm not sure I ever really sleep. Yet, the dream-escape is always in design. I'll do anything I can to combat the present-tense, by pulling valuables of historic importance, and throwing them into the face of a fragile future. I've been charged by being retro and ahead of my time. Guilty as charged. I work in la luz crepuscular [“the twilight”], when the coyotes silently patrol our neighbourhood. It's on the rim of a forest, just east of the city. That's when it's quiet, and ideas germinate. Once I capture the an idea, I follow it through with the unquestioning devotion of a dog. That hard work….the time between inspiration and execution….comes in the heat of the day. Music takes both commitments. One is monastic. The other is highly social. As I work mostly as an arranger/composer, I work alone most of the time. Seeing Arranging as a way of supporting my family, I've done many sessions. Astonishing, really. I've just released an album (both LP Vinyl and CD) called "Arrangements Volume 1"! On the Bananastan label, it's a compilation of many great artists I've served. It's done so well really, we're issuing "Volume 2" next Spring.
SMiLE was (relatively) recently released, 44 years after its inception. If you could give one piece of advice to yourself 44 years ago, what would it be?
I have no advice for me! I'd rather take the opportunity to console that man, for whom "a job once started and not completed" is a terrible burden to carry through life. Of course, I realized fully that it's folly to be where you're not wanted. That's true in lyric-writing as well as on fine linen, with a beautiful woman! It's vital to be where you're not only wanted, but needed.
In the case of "Smile", it turns out that I was needed, and grabbed Victory from The Jaws of Defeat!
You have written scores for a lot of TV and Film. Is there any writer or director you would particularly like to work with in the future?
Where music meets film in my life-time, my favourite dramatic is Dennis Potter (Nicholson agreed with me on this point). Mr. Potter is dead. Yet, his work in maximizing music in a dramatic exposition is without parallel - except perhaps in artists such as Goya, or Van Gogh. There's social foment, violence, and deep tranquillity in their bodies of work. All those qualities can be seen in a single brush-stroke, in miniature or mural. Potter's work admits to esquizofrenia. It wobbles between confirmation and absolute doubt. The result? An informed optimism. He invented a way to bring the song-form into dramatic frameworks in an astonishing way. Examples: "Pennies From Heaven"; "The Singing Detective". Such work, that agitates urgently, but is beautiful to behold - I sure want to keep such qualities in my song-writing, film-scores, and worded works.
"Each of these limited singles is a tangible "objet d'art", an article that may out live a download. And, it's the finest quality of sound reproduction made"
I understand you have started a record label, Bananastan, mainly focused on releasing split 7”s. Can you tell us a bit about it? Where did the impetus behind it come from and why the split 7” format?
I decided that I use my "end-game" going out where I arrived in recording, with the hi-fi vinyl stereo single. That's the medium that launched my career in my brunette days of "the '60s". These singles you mention have high profile American artists providing the sleeve art that wraps these new post-9/11 songs on vinyl. The artists? Ed Ruscha (one oil of his has sold for over $100 million. His work typifies and captures Southern California, and Paris!) Frank Holmes (whose art gave "Smile" a reason to smile, with its cartoon consciousness). Frank nailed my revenge in "Black Gold". Sally Parks (my water-colourist wife. Also born in Mississippi, her work graces a song I wrote about Hurricane Katrina). Klaus Voormann (who did the Beatles' "Revolver" cover) graced "The All Golden" single. In it, he puts me (in overalls at a grand piano) at the edge of an immense wheat field. It's drawn as if from a high flying hawk's p.o.v. Brilliant. Stanley Dorfman (who directed the BBC's longest running T.V. show) is the only abstract, with his oil of "Joshua Tree". Charles Ray (a sizzlingly hot escultura [sculpter], carved two life-sized statues of me, for a side-A and side-B.
All this contributed art - to make a symbiotic connection between sights and sounds. Each of these limited singles is a tangible "objet d'art". It's an article that may out live a download. And, it's the finest quality of sound reproduction made. (The CD, in fact, is a far more brittle technology, with a lower "sampling rate" and a "diamond case" that is anything but!)
"I try to keep a degree of subtlety in my work, in the interest of durability"
The art work looks great. Where do you stand on the concept that cover art is becoming a lost art in the digital age?
I am not following the blind over that cliff.
I understand you said: “I'm still committed to the song-form, which I see as the most potent political force for public awakening and discourse.” Can you elaborate on this statement? How do you feel about today’s political climate?
We're in a new Age, called "Anthropocene". Geologists date it from the dropping of the first Atomic Bomb. It's defined as a new moment in time, wherein Man has finally reached his Biblical mandate: "Multiply and Subdue the Earth”. So, there's an Eco-politic in all my work. This has been the case since '69. It's more pronounced in 1970's "Discover America" (just re-released by Bella Union), with my rage against Oil & World Power. "Black Gold" summarizes the sinking of "The Prestige". What an ironic name for that single-hulled oil tanker.) It went down off the Bay of Biscay (Cantabria). This, Europe's first ecologic catastrophe, in November, 2002, tarred over 50% on the Spanish western coast. Where is the out-rage? Problems like this must be insinuated into the Arts, to raise a global village from its slumber. Yet, that fist may be gloved in velvet. I try to keep a degree of subtlety in my work, in the interest of durability.
You have worked as an actor. Do you think this is has informed your work as a musician at all? If so, how?
It paid some bills.
"I advise you: put your best work ahead of you"
Over your career there have been a lot of developments in regards to recording techniques. How have contemporary practices affected the way you work?
The good news? Musicians can work alone. The bad news? Musicians often have no other choice. Nothing beats analogue. Nothing beats being among a group of musicians, taking off in flight formation. Synthesizers have brought good and bad news.
I understand Bella Union have recently re-released your first three albums. How did that come about? How did it feel re-visiting them after all these years?
Simon Raymonde (the president of Bella Union) is as informed about big bands and orchestras as he is about grunge and hip hop. He thought it ridiculous that my recordings weren't available in my own life time. I hate to sound immodest, but I agree.
Your musical influences seem to be broad to say the least - calypso, bluegrass, psychedelia – do you still feel as if you are widening your musical horizons? Are there any contemporary movements, genres or artists that particularly interest you or paths you would like to explore?
My diet changes daily. Today, it's Portugal's fado and Italy's Paolo Conte (my favourite recording artist/pianist/arranger/poet). I spin into the magnetic field of "roots" music, for all its preserves. Central to the Suite is the heat of "the street". That's where extemporaneous agonies of the bared soul rise up to the parlour, where they should be heard. New Orleans' virtuoso Louis Moreau Gottschalk became the court pianist to the Queen of Spain, back in the mid-19th Century. I suspect he got too close to her. Yet, Gottschalk wrote down what came from Spanish roots music. For that reason, much folkloric detail lives through his arrangements. Gottschalk astonished me as a child. He is the role-model for an American composer/arranger.
I’ve heard you say “I maintain my best work is ahead of me” a number of times in interviews. Is that a sentiment you still stand by?
That expression, while probably clarividente [discerning], is more advisory than confessional. All of us have so much to do, to summon the human potential to an informed optimism, far beyond religious fundamentalisms and hatred. I advise you: put your best work ahead of you. Adelante! [Forward!] ...and to you: salud, amor, y pesetas - y mucho tiempo para gastarío todo [health, love, and pesetas - and a lot of time to spend it all].