Michael Nesmith interview, Rays, The Monkees

A chat with Michael Nesmith

Music Home / Entertainment Channel / Bullz-Eye Home

Where do you start when listing Michael Nesmith’s accomplishments? Well, okay, fair enough, you start with the Monkees. After that, though, you almost run out of fingers when citing what he’s done in his career. He’s had a solo musical career that’s brought him critical acclaim and fan adoration, he’s been a movie producer, he’s written a novel, he’s launched a 3D web environment…it really does go on and on. As such, when word got out that Nez had a new album coming out – Rays – Bullz-Eye immediately leapt up and shouted, “We’d like to talk with him, if that could be arranged!” It could, indeed. The conversation had originally been scheduled to start at 11:00 AM EST (8:00 AM PST, since Nez is an early riser), but after a fifteen-minute grace period without having the phone ring, I dropped a line to his publicist – who also happens to be his wife – and gently asked if the interview was still a go. A few minutes later, she called and was all apologies, explaining that she accidentally wrote 11:00 AM PST on the schedule, but I assured her that it was no harm, no foul; grateful, she ran to get Nez on the line.

Michael Nesmith: Will?

Bullz-Eye: Yes?

MN: I am so sorry!

BE: That’s quite all right.

MN: I really am. I apologize. We usually keep our schedules much better coordinated, but Vic…somehow, her info didn’t get over to me and my info didn’t get over to her, so please accept my apologies.

BE: No problem. The beauty of working at home as this kind of writer is that I always have some CD that needs to be listened to or some DVD that needs to be watched for a review, so no complaints on my end.

MN: (Laughs) All right, well, I appreciate your understanding.

BE: So I see from the publicity shots for the new album that your beard is gone.

MN: Oh, yeah, that’s been gone a long time!

BE: Has it really? I guess I hadn’t seen any recent photos of you, then.

MN: I guess not, but that’s been gone nearly a decade!

BE: Oh, wow, I guess it has been that long since I’ve seen a new photo of you!

MN: Yeah, you measure things in decades once you decide that there is no time, and realize that time is just kind of this arbitrary measurement, so you think, “Well, wait, I can just measure things in decades or I can measure things in centuries.” I was the car the other day, talking to somebody, and said, “Yeah, I remember half a century ago, when I…” (Laughs) I thought, I can actually say that!

BE: Well, I know that you released Live at the Britt Festival in 1999, but I guess Rays is your first proper studio album since The Garden in 1994.

MN: Yeah, um, calling it a proper studio album is maybe a misnomer. Typically, the way I have worked in the past is to go into a studio with a stack of songs…maybe one or two more than I think I might actually need…sit down with some really pulled-together players, work out some head arrangements, play ‘em, overdub it, do the vocals, sweeten it up, mix it, and be all done in ten to fifteen days. But with Rays, I started noodling in the studio and putting pieces together and so forth, and the next thing I knew, I was sitting in stacks and stacks and stacks of these splintered files and splintered ideas and strange pieces of stuff here and there, stuck, like…like finding a quarter in the couch and coming up with a slip of paper that was left in a pocket. Those sorts of things. So it ended up taking like five years in order to finally coalesce into something that I understood. And that was a completely different experience for me. So I think you can probably call it a studio album, but it’s not the way I ordinarily do a studio album. And I don’t recommend it! I hope I would never do it again. I’m not ever going to do it again, let’s put it that way.

"I've had a lot of people ask me to shut up and sit down, and I haven't had a lot of people say, 'Hey, stand up and sing!'"

BE: Well, I guess the creation of an album isn’t what it once was, anyway, with the digital medium now.

MN: Yeah, I’ll say! It really is. It’s so…personal and individual and comes into a completely different space. I see people recording at home…or you look at a band like Keane, and you know that they do all that stuff just sitting around in various living rooms.

BE: Actually, I got to interview their drummer a few weeks ago, and he said that the band’s first album was basically written while the band’s songwriter sat at his piano, drinking a bottle of wine, and drunkenly composed! And then they just went into the studio and recorded it.

MN: Yeah, that’s the drill. But even more interesting to me is the level of output. There’s so much! It’s gone from hundreds to thousands to hundreds of thousands to probably millions of people making their own music…all of which, I think, is a good thing.

BE: Absolutely.

MN: I’ll bet that there are gems and treasures and everything else going on.

BE: There’s certainly a lot to be heard through MySpace. I’m constantly getting people inviting me to their page and getting me to check out new stuff that I otherwise never would’ve heard.

MN: Yeah. You know, MySpace went down the other day, because of a power outage.

BE: Yep. I got the message from Tom, the ubiquitous friend to everyone on the site. Do you actually have a MySpace profile? Because there are at least three people on there claiming to be you, and I’m pretty sure none of them actually are.

MN: (Bursts into laughter) Are there really? No, I don’t!

BE: Yeah, there’s one guy who admits outright that he’s not you, that he’s just basically spreading the gospel of Nez, but at least two other people…one’s just called Mike and has the wool hat picture.

MN: Oh, yeah? There’s an interesting blog by a woman named Danah Boyd, who is – according to the blog and according to her website – getting a PhD from SIMS at (UC) Berkeley in Online Identity. I may be misstating this, she may not be getting a PhD exactly in that, but it’s something along those lines, and I’ve really been interested in the way she’s been tracking the changes in people’s representations of themselves. They get online, start to interact with other people, and create the online identity. Of course… (Starts to laugh) …I suppose one option is just to take somebody else’s! But there are a lot of other options besides that. Years ago, when Jaron Lanier was noodling around with virtual reality, he was real tickled with the idea that you could go into these 3D chat spaces as…as a lobster! So I thought, yeah, we’re in for a wild ride out there!

BE: With Rays, I love the (album cover) artwork by Drew Friedman. Had you been a fan of his?

MN: I have! I have not been a follower of his; he just kind of popped up on the radar when I was looking for the right way to do this album. Actually, Victoria, my wife, said, “Let’s maybe look around for somebody to do something special and different than just taking pictures or doing some sort of collage or mishmash. Let’s see if we can’t find something interesting.” Years ago, Drew’s brother had given me a book of their cartoons, in which Drew had drawn me as…actually, he’d done a caricature of Dick Clark as various media icons, and one of the icons he drew was Dick Clark as me! It was odd…but funny and smart. So I called him up, and he was a delight to work with and had some really good ideas, one of which was the idea that you see represented on the album cover. I sent him the album and I said, “Let’s don’t work together if you don’t like this music, so the first thing you have to do is listen to it, and if you don’t like it, then you have you tell me, and that’ll be that. And if you do like it, then you have to tell me, and then we can go from there.” And he called up and said, “Yeah, I like it, and this is what I get from it.” And I said, “Yeah, we’re right on the same page!” So he started off. I liked the idea that he had, a kind of an environmental sense of the timeline and the narrative of Rays, you know, because I didn’t actually consciously make that, but that was the thing that emerged from it…so the whole atmosphere and environment and topology of the world that it created was sort of new. And the fact that it struck him as well was a real plus. Of course, when he drew it, it was even more fun. (Pauses) You know, I’m in the middle of relaunching VR3D, which is a 3D online community…

BE: Right, Victoria actually mentioned that when I spoke to her the other day.

MN: Oh, she did? Yeah, right, well, it’s taking all of our time these days! One of the things that’s so interesting to me about these online communities…they have pretty obvious benefits in terms of communication and 3D chat and the avatars and moving around in the whole environment. All those things are pretty obvious, but artistically and aesthetically, they create a completely new canvas…a new way of thinking about how art can be expressed…and one of them, of course, is the topology of an environment that you just never really get to think about in music and, to some degree, movies. But even movies, because you’re editing and mashing things together and creating a narrative and making things go along, you don’t get to think about it much there, either; you’re driven by the story, and you’re sort of doing art direction to make the story play out. Whereas with a 3D environment, you create this world into which you step, and wherever you walk, there it is. And it’s a lot of fun. And to have a musical piece like Rays create that, sort of spontaneously, off to the side, was a real happy experience.

BE: I think Victoria passed my review on to you, so you’ve already seen…

MN: Yeah, thanks for the nice words!

BE: Oh, absolutely.

MN: I appreciate that. It’s always nice to hear what other people have to say. With all respect, I tend to not read reviews and not pay a lot of attention to them, but that’s not to say that they don’t have their place.

BE: Well, as I admitted in the review, I’m terrible at metaphors…

MN: Ah.

BE: …so I therefore embraced the music moreso than I was able to absorb the lyrics in their entirety. Like, for instance, on that cover art, where Drew draws you as being on a quest to satisfy your hunger…well, clearly, it is not really talking about food.

MN: (Laughs) Right…though, I mean, it depends on what you mean by “food,” doesn’t it?

BE: Well, now, see…

MN: And it depends on what you mean by “is.”

BE: (Laughs nervously) Well, certainly, I loved the music, but what were your intentions with the lyrics? I mean, I know that you were kind of looking for metaphors to connect the album; I read that in another interview.

"With all respect, I tend to not read reviews and not pay a lot of attention to them…but that’s not to say that they don’t have their place."

MN: Well, you know, with lyrics, you’re confined to…maybe “confined” isn’t the right word…but a word is a very specific and clear and precise communication of an idea, and I understand that there are all sorts of options for interpretation and so forth, but, still, in all, when you use a word, you have an intent to using the word, and it’s clear what that word is….whereas a series of notes in harmony create a different kind of mental landscape. Same way with colors in painting, or any sort of art. So every time I found myself putting words to music, the words would overtake it in some strange degree. And most of the time, it was a good thing; most of the time, it was what I intended, because I wanted the words to pick up the extra emphasis from the music and to be delivered with the power of the combined media. But with Rays, there was a lot that got said…and completely and satisfyingly…in just music only. Like, for instance, “Land of Pies.” It has a certain feel and communicates a dynamic at that portion of the record that works just exactly right for where it sits. But that actually has lyrics to it, and I left them off. First of all, the lyrics were apropos to something else that I was working on and had written, but, second, the underpinning of the music, especially with that cool organ work by Chester (Thompson)…

BE: Yeah, actually, I had mentioned how his work, combined with your guitar, gave it almost a Santana feel.

MN: Yeah. And it all just made much more sense that way, so that was a choice I made.

BE: I think one of my only regrets about the album was that we didn’t get to hear you sing as much as I would’ve hoped…because you’re still very much in strong voice, based on the evidence that is there.

MN: (Clears throat) Well, you know, I never have had a very good understanding of my own voice. I’ve had a lot of people ask me to shut up and sit down, and I haven’t had a lot of people say, “Hey, stand up and sing!” So I don’t really know how I sound. But when I do sing, I enjoy it, so I suppose there’s a clue there.

BE: Is there any chance of a tour behind the album? I’ve read that you enjoyed the possibility, but I didn’t know if there were really any talks about it.

MN: Well, my standard answer…the few times I’ve been asked that question, my standard answer is that if there’s a public mandate, I’ll do it. And by that, I mean if there’s enough people to come see it, then of course I’ll go out and play it. It would make an interesting show, I think, and given the instrumentation of it and all the sampling, it would be kind of a mass of new technology, synthesizers and stuff. But so far, that mandate’s not there, and I’m not sure whether it will be or not, so right now, there’s no plans.

BE: I almost had visions of something like Brian Wilson’s Smile tour, where he played the whole album in its entirety, then came back out to do some of the other songs that he knew people would want to hear as well.

MN: Well, that’s good company to keep. I like his work.

BE: Now, you’ve been taking kind of a unique method of distributing the album. You did the special edition (a limited-edition version available through his website late last year, then through download; now it’s available through Amazon, and I hear it’s eventually working its way into actual, physical stores.

MN: Yeah, well, the final…there’s a chain of events that comes along now in distribution that hasn’t been there in the past, and the final step in that distribution is retail. Before, it used to be the second step; the first was to get it out to radio, so people could sample it, and the second was to get it to retail…and, actually, those were about the only two steps you could take half a century ago. But, now, you have so many different ways to get music out, and I took a page out of one of my artist friends’ books…Ed Roche, who has these prints and special editions that he does…and I thought, well, why can’t I do a special-edition CD? So I did and was surprised to find out that a couple of hundred of them sold out in about four hours.

BE: Yeah, that’s what I heard!

MN: So that was fun…’cause I actually did all those by hand myself, and they, uh, tend to look it! But that’s okay; they have a nice, handmade feel to them. And then the second step was to put it online, which I think surprised a lot of people, especially the people in the conventional record business…the old conventional record business. And it really turned into a fairly significant step, because, right now, the general sense is that online means iTunes…and that’s not exactly all there is to it. As a matter of fact, it’s a very large world of download stores, and it’s taken us several months to get through all the hurdles and get through all the clearances and get through all the digitization and find the various licensing and rights people. I know full well that this thing shows up on the free sites, and I don’t’ think there’s much you can do about that, but in terms of the sites that sell it so that the artist can get paid for the work, there’s a lot of options…and it’s all the way from Norway to Nigeria, from Australia to Austria, and they all have their own little different quirks and fiddly bits, and getting all that worked out really took like three or four months. And then the final step turns out to be the retail system, and we just put that in place. We had an April 1st retail distribution date, and it was technically available then, though there were only a handful of stores that had it, Amazon being one of them. And now we’re rolling out with a UK distributor and a US distributor to land it in the stores…but, really, that’s turned into the last step. It’s way, way downstream.

BE: I wasn’t at all surprised to find that you’d embraced music downloads, because you’ve always been a major proponent of new technology. It looks like pretty much your entire back catalog is now available for download…including The Wichita Train Whistle Sings! (Writer’s note: The Wichita Train Whistle Sings was a bit of a whim that Nez did in 1967, where he re-recorded several of his songs in a unique instrumental, orchestral manner; it remained out of print for over thirty years before Nesmith reissued it on his own label.)

MN: Yep. I’ve kept track of all that stuff and made sure it’s stayed pristine and archived it carefully. I’m not so much a proponent of new technology as that I like to see really good ideas well-facilitated, so they get out there and communicated. New technology just for new technology’s sake doesn’t interest me, but new technology that gives you an obvious benefit does.

BE: I did an interview with Susanna Hoffs and Matthew Sweet a few months back…

MN: Yeah!

BE: …and Susanna mentioned that she’d gotten an e-mail from you where you offered some kind praise for their cover of “Different Drum.”

MN: Yeah, well, they did a good job, I thought. I think the song has a fairly straight-ahead sensibility, and she sings well, so I was happy with their rendition of it. It was kind of nice hearing Matthew put the harmonies on it and so forth. I hear it’s getting a lot of airplay and is one of their most downloaded songs, so that’s all to the good.

BE: They just did a live performance in New York, which I heard was rapturously received.

MN: Oh, really? Well, that’s good! I’m sure that was exciting. I wonder if she sang “Different Drum.” I guess she did.

BE: I would certainly think that she would have.

MN: Well, good!

BE: And I know that Kurt Wagner (singer/songwriter with the Nashville alt-country band Lambchop) is on your album. I meant to ask about that a minute ago. Is he a fan of yours? And how did you come to work with him?

MN: Actually, I don’t know if he was a fan of mine or not, but I was sort of a fan of his! I like the Lambchop stuff, and I really wanted to tap into the Nashville sensibility, the Nashville psyche, but I didn’t want to go down the pop road. I also didn’t want to come in through the Appalachian woods, with the traditional stuff. Americana and country rock and stuff has long since left my radar, and so I was looking around and stumbled onto Lambchop, and I was so surprised that that kind of music was coming out of Nashville until I met Kurt and I realized that he has a really intriguing take on things. So we became acquaintances and friends, he came out here, we spent a little time together, I played him a little bit of Rays, and I asked him to sing on it. It all just sort of happened like that.

BE: I’ve got a few rapid-fire quickie questions for you, because I know we’ve been talking for awhile. As one of the folks directly responsible for what would eventually become MTV, are you disappointed that it’s devolved into almost nothing to do with music anymore?

MN: Well, you know, I don’t watch broadcast television; I spend a lot of time on the ‘net. I’ve lost touch with MTV. I only have happy memories of the start-up of it and the potentials of it, so if it’s not providing as much fun today as it was then, well, I’m sorry about that, but it sure was fun when we did it.

BE: “Tapeheads” and “Repo Man” are two of my favorite films of the ‘80s.

MN: Yeah, well, good!

BE: Given how long it’s been since you dabbled in that, is it safe to say that you’re done with the film production part of your career?

MN: Oh, no; film production is always around. It’s like an uncle who’s moved into my den and sits there with his socks up on the ottoman, who was drinking lemonade and looking out the window, but now he’s sleeping, and every once in awhile, I think he’s going to wake up and say, “Hey, let’s go play some badminton!” And when he does, then I’ll go and do it!

BE: And given that you co-wrote the film, I guess you’d be the person to ask: was there ever talk of a sequel to “Timerider”?

MN: No, there was talk of a television series of “Timerider,” but, you know, conventional television has come and gone, and I don’t know where “Timerider” would fit on that landscape, so, no, there is no talk of a sequel. I don’t…I can’t imagine…that was a one-time kind of story. Been there, did that, over.

BE: And speaking of movies, this morning, I was watching the documentary “Fallen Angel,” about Gram Parsons…

MN: Ah!

BE: …and I know you said that country-rock is off your radar now, but when you were doing that in the early ‘70s, did you think of him as being a peer, or were you just doing what you were doing and not worrying about that aspect of it?

MN: I was absolutely unaware of any of those guys, because I had no idea I was doing country-rock! That was not part of the lexicon at that time. When I started off with the Monkees and kind of got a fix on the way the music was going to come down there, it was very disappointing to me, as you might imagine, but it was nonetheless a chance to get into the studio and do some things. So I just thought, well, I’ll just make the best of this; I didn’t realize this was going to be quite so controlled by the producers and so forth. But what I wanted to do then was work with some guys that I’ve heard. So some of the first Monkees music, I guess, was “Papa Gene’s Blues” and “Sweet Young Thing” and so forth, and the guys back in New York said, “Wait, this is way too much…WAIT! This is wayyyyyyy too country! This is awful, nobody wants to hear country music on television, don’t do this, don’t twang this up…” So I sort of backed off. But when “The Monkees” finally went off the air and I was back doing my solo music, I went right back to that with the first three albums, the National Band albums, and it was almost in a vacuum. I was aware, of course, of Roger (McGuinn), Gene (Clark), and David (Crosby) doing the stuff with the Byrds, but, by and large, I was just pretty much out there, completely oblivious to what was happening. And none of us, nobody that I knew ever called up and said, “Hey, man, have you heard the fabulous new country-rock sound?” (Laughs) That would’ve been bizarre in the extreme! We were all just making music. So, no, as far as I know, I never laid eyes on the man, Gram and I. I played with those guys a little bit, Roger and those guys, when they were doing the Sweetheart of the Rodeo tour, but that was as much interaction in the L.A. country rock music scene that I had. All my country stuff came right out of Nashville; that’s where I was doing it. I’d go to Nashville and play there. And when I put together the First National Band, we just holed up and did it ourselves.

BE: Did you know the guys from the Byrds from living in Laurel Canyon?

MN: Not…well, I knew ‘em from (playing at) the Troubadour. Everybody was a folkie at that time.

BE: And I’ll ask the inevitable Monkees questions now. I didn’t want to do those until the very end.

MN: Okay.

BE: I read a less than positive quote from Davy (Jones) the other day on the subject of any reunion, but I felt there was a certain degree of closure after the 30th anniversary of the group. I mean, the four of you did (the reunion album) Justus, you did the show for ABC (an hour-long special that worked under the premise that, while “The Monkees” had gone off the air, the guys still lived in the same beach house and had continued to make episodes of the show…except that they weren’t actually airing anywhere), and the four of you did some live dates. Do you keep in touch with any of the other three guys anymore?

MN: No. Uh-uh.

BE: And given your tendency to look back rather than forward, did they have to twist your arm to do the audio commentaries on the DVD set of the show’s first season?

MN: No, I was happy to do that. I don’t…like you say, there’s not a lot to be said about that. After you do it once, you don’t want to do it over and over and over. And that’s one of the things that seems curious to me: continuously revisiting the same thing and talking about the same thing over and over. So I don’t do that. But the commentary on the first season, that was new, so… (Drifts off)

BE: Do you have a favorite Monkees album, as a whole?

"(The Monkees’ albums) all have kind of a nice pop sensibility to them. It doesn’t tend to be my cup of tea exactly, but there were some good things going on."

MN: No, not really. I don’t…of course, Headquarters was, really, the one I was most interested in doing. (Writer’s note: Headquarters was the first album on which the Monkees played the majority of the instruments themselves.) But they all have kind of a nice pop sensibility to them. It doesn’t tend to be my cup of tea exactly, but there were some good things going on. I think that the horsepower came from the marriage of the mediums, of television and records…television and music. That was one of the things that was so intriguing and compelling to me about the whole thing in the first place. I didn’t realize at the time that the music was so secondary to the people in charge, and I don’t think it had to do so much with the decision that they made, but just the fact that the machine that was in place – being broadcast television – didn’t really have a place for music. I mean, we’re talking about the era of four-track recording. Actually, three-track! But four-track recording and stereo was not even really much on the scene. So the idea that music would’ve been a critical component or a critical contingent was something that I took to that whole endeavor to find out whether or not by being with television it was going to be as potent as it was. And, sure enough, it was. It was a very nice connection between those two mediums. So I think that’s where, if you look at where “The Monkees” fits, that’s where it fits…the confluence of those two things. I don’t know that anyone’s ever really quite got at that yet, really discovered exactly what that meant. But that was the big deal to me.

BE: Were you pleasantly surprised when Sundazed Records released the Penny Arkade material on disc? (Writer’s note: Nez produced some material for the band, who sounded like a cross between the Monkees and Buffalo Springfield, in the ‘60s, in hopes of getting the band signed to a record deal, but no one bit, and the material remained unreleased until 2004.)

MN: Um, I was…yeah, I was definitely surprised, and definitely pleasantly! I was kind of…what’s the word? Curious! (Laughs) I had no idea that anybody knew that that was still out there, so I was glad to see it come to the surface; it was good music there.

BE: And what’s the status of the Council on Ideas? (Writer’s note: The Council is described as “a biennial forum which meets for the purpose of considering and recommending action on what they judge to be the most important issue of our time.” It’s part of the Gihon Foundation, which was founded by Nesmith’s mother, Bette C. Graham...who, lest we forget, invited Liquid Paper.) I went to the website, but it doesn’t seem to have been updated since the 2000 meeting.

MN: Well, no, we’re very active, but just not in the same way. We’re not quite as public. We’re getting ready for a small conference back at Princeton this fall, and we bought some land; we’re going to probably build a facility for some conferencing. And, again, it’s confluence of ideas that interest me and the other board members…and, so, yeah, we’re staying right at it. But the Council on Ideas started to get a little too public and there was a little too much media watch of it, and the next thing you know, the guys who were coming there were in there to sell their books, and the substance of the ideas were not coming to the surface, and that’s really what I’m most interested in: the substance of those ideas. Getting some good, clear air. So, no, we’re at it, and we’re very serious, and it’s taken a lot of work and focus and time and money, but I feel as good about it as I ever have.

BE: And last question: given how many different credits you have to your name, if you had a say, how would you want to be remembered?

MN: Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah…!

BE: Not going there?

MN: I never answer that question.

BE: Fair enough. Alright, well, it’s been fantastic talking to you…

MN: Good, good! Well, thanks for the review and be sure and stop by VR3D when you get a chance, and check in there. It’s a brave new world; we’re having a great time. We should be up and running around August 1st. It’s a membership-only place, so you’ll have to call up and get your URL and everything, get your password, membership…we’ll give you all of that. But come in and hang out. I think you’ll be intrigued with it.

BE: I’ll do it. Well, it’s been great talking to you, Michael.

MN: Thanks!