Interview Date: 08/20/2010
Run Date: 09/10/2010
I’ve done a lot of interviews in my time, many of which have come about through unique circumstances, but few of those circumstances have felt quite as ridiculous as the one which led me into a 30-minute conversation with legendary musician / producer / engineer Alan Parsons.
Yes, that’s right: I speak of the man behind The Alan Parsons Project.
Although the Project hasn’t been active for some time now, the same cannot be said of Parsons himself, who recently released a solo single (“All Our Yesterdays,” available for download through all of your favorite online outlets) and has been spending a great deal of time working on a 24-section series entitled “The Art and Science of Sound Recording,” which you can stream, download, or purchase on DVD, whatever your pleasure. Parsons and I discussed these projects, as well as the Project – the one with the capital P – that has arguably brought him the most fame, taking time also to chat about his work behind the scenes with such artists as Al Stewart, Ambrosia, Pink Floyd, and, yes, The Beatles, too
Oh, but you’re probably still focusing on that opening paragraph, which likely left you going, “Hang on, exactly what were those circumstances that led you into this interview?”
Let’s find out, shall we?
Alan Parsons: Hello! Good morning!
Bullz-Eye: Good morning, Alan! It’s a pleasure to speak with you.
AP: And you! And remind me, if you would, who you’re with…
BE: Well, I’m doing the full-length interview for the web magazine Bullz-Eye.com, but, uh, I’m not sure if they mentioned to you how we came to chat in the first place.
AP: Something to do with Vulture Culture, apparently…?
BE: (Laughs) Uh, yes, sort of.
AP: (Laughs) But I apparently don’t know the story or I’ve forgotten it.
BE: Well, our local aquarium is putting on a celebration in conjunction with International Vulture Awareness Day, and my editor at the local newspaper, The Virginian-Pilot, said that I should write an article about the event with a “silly and fun” tone, so I thought, “Well, if there’s any definitive source for matters of vulture culture, it would be Alan Parsons.”
AP: (Laughs) Are they actually using that expression, then?
BE: No, no, I just thought it would be funny to get a quote from you about the event.
AP: Right, so you’re talking about actual bird vultures, then. (Laughs) Because you realize, of course, that the album title originally came from the expression “culture vulture.” We just juxtaposed the two words.
BE: I did know that, I promise. But, uh, you do approve of International Vulture Awareness Day, yes…?
AP: (Laughs) Assuming it doesn’t involve cruelty of any kind, yes.
BE: Absolutely not. It’s strictly a tribute.
AP: We have buzzards or vultures or whatever you call them flying around our house every day. In fact, I think we have a rare black-headed breed of vulture or buzzard here.
BE: Nice! Well, I appreciate you chiming in on this very important matter… (Laughs) …but to save my credibility, I should mention that I’d downloaded “All Our Yesterdays” long before this vulture article came about.
AP: Oh, really?
BE: Most definitely. I’ve been a big fan for many years, and I was thrilled to see you releasing new material. So what drew you back into the studio again?
AP: It was really just a one-off piece that formed part of this DVD series that I’ve been working on for the past few years, “The Art and Science of Sound Recording.” It’s a song that you see getting recorded right from the get-go, from demo stage right up to final mix. It was great, actually, to get working here in California with some of the really great musicians that are so evident in the studio world. We’ve got Simon Phillips on drums. Do you know who he is?
BE: Absolutely, yeah.
(Writer’s note: Phillips, in addition to countless studio credits, spent several years as The Who’s go-to drummer and was the first person Toto contacted when their longtime drummer, Steve Porcaro, died.)
AP: Nathan East is on bass, who’s played with Clapton and countless others, and Tim Pierce is probably the number one session guitarist in L.A. Rami Jaffee has played keyboards for the Wallflowers and the Foo Fighters. He was a joy to work with. Such a funny guy, a lovely chap. We sort of cross-pollinated, introducing him to a singer that we discovered in Santa Cruz named Matt Lucca, and he ended up producing his album. But, yeah, the “Art and Science” project has dominated my life for two whole years, literally, and I’d like to say it’s exhaustive… (Laughs) …but at the very least, it’s an extremely thorough look at everything to do with recording!
BE: So what inspired you to start this? Did someone approach you and ask you to do something like this?
AP: Well, the co-producer is a guy named Julian Colbeck, who actually is quite well known inside the pro audio industry for his journalism. He’s reviewed keyboards and been a keyboard expert for years and years, and he actually made a similar program in the late ‘80s, which I actually did an interview for. (Laughs) He remembered that as being a great concept, and I was one of the few people who he interviewed, so we just brought it into the 21st century for DAWs (digital audio workstations) and Pro Tools and all that, and essentially remade the whole thing, but much more in-depth and much more interview-driven. We did countless interviews with engineers, producers, and masterers about each topic, which is what you see in the program. You might want to… (Hesitates) Are we audio, or will this be the printed word?
BE: (Laughs) It’ll be in print.
AP: Well, you might want to check out the website, then, to get more of a feel for it.
BE: I told some musician friends that I was going to be speaking with you, and without knowing that we were going to be speaking about this series, they’d wanted me to ask you for your thoughts on the changes in the process of recording in recent years…specifically, the fact that someone can basically go to their laptop and record an entire album.
AP: Well, that’s true, yeah: you can make an album while you’re on a train if you want to. (Laughs) Which is good and bad. It means there’s more music out there, and unfortunately that means more bad music as well, but it also means more good music. I’m kind of encouraged by the way that the technology has reached the masses. The professional recording studios used to be these temples for the superstars, and the superstars were the only ones who ever got to be in them, but now recording technology is accessible. There’s also the scope for long-distance collaboration, which never used to be possible. You can now record over the internet, and that’s one of the topics that we cover in the program. PJ (Olsson), the singer who did the vocal for “All Our Yesterdays,” did it from his little studio in Michigan, while mine was in California.
BE: Wow. And, yes, I’m very familiar with PJ. You’ve worked with him before, of course.
AP: Yes! Yes, he’s great. We’ve really collaborated in all areas of my business – recording and live – so, yeah, he’s very much part of my team.
BE: How did you and he first cross paths?
AP: How did we first meet? Um…it was actually through an old friend mine: David Pack, from Ambrosia. He had heard about PJ between his manager and PJ’s manager, and he just put his name forward as somebody I should meet. And we did meet, and I originally took him on as a recording collaborator and a songwriter, and I knew he was into computers and stuff, but then it turned out he was also a great singer. That sort of happened as a secondary thing, but he did a great job in the band.
BE: Funny you should mention David Pack: thanks to my membership with eMusic.com, I’ve recently gone back and discovered Ambrosia’s Somewhere I’ve Never Traveled, which you produced.
AP: Oh, really? Well, that’s good! (Hesitates) I should find out who’s released it, because technically I should get paid for that.
BE: It’s come out through Warner Brothers, I believe.
AP: I’ll have to check that out.
BE: Absolutely, especially since you should’ve earned at least a few cents from my having downloaded it! (Laughs) Well, this gives me the opportunity to ask you about your stead as a producer, specifically your work with Al Stewart. I’m a big fan of Al’s, but Year of the Cat and Time Passages were the records that first introduced me to his work.
AP: Oh, really? Me, too! (Laughs) No, I’m joking. I knew his name before I’d worked with him, but he was considered a folk singer, really. He was playing in folk clubs, just him and his guitar. That’s what he did. He just kind of branched out and became more electric…a bit like Bob Dylan, I suppose. He just became a guy who had great songs, great lyrics, and decided to do them with an electric band, and I met him at, I think, a turning point in his career, with the Modern Times album. Have you heard that one?
BE: I have, yes.
AP: I think my input was useful to him. The sound that he got with me was substantially different from what he’d gotten before. It was a good team. We did three albums. That’s more than I’ve done with most people. (Laughs)
BE: So how did you approach the process of recording him? Because, as you say, he was decidedly folkier before you teamed up with him.
AP: Well, you know, he had a lot of great musician contacts, a lot of people I hadn’t worked with before, particularly Tim Renwick, who was then playing with Sutherland Brothers & Quiver. What a fantastic guitarist. We’ve bumped into each other on occasion ever since. You probably know: he went out with Pink Floyd. Peter White was another great musician, who now has another career in jazz guitar, and the late Peter Woods, who I think was partly responsible for writing “Year of the Cat.”
BE: Speaking of eMusic, they also introduced me to the Keats album.
AP: Oh, really? That’s another one I should probably be getting paid on. (Laughs) Only in the music business…
BE: Actually, now that I look on eMusic, it’s not there, but it definitely was at one time. What I’ve wondered about the record was whether or not it had ever been intended as an Alan Parsons Project album, given the crossover between the players.
(Writer’s note: Keats, which lasted for precisely one self-titled album, was a five-piece band, four of whom – Colin Blunstone, Ian Bairnson, David Paton, and Stuart Elliott – had turned up on various Alan Parsons Project releases over the years.)
AP: It was designed to be, essentially, a sideline project. I mean, it involved many of the same people, but the main difference was the principal songwriter, which was Pete Bardens. The singer of all the songs was Colin Blunstone. Yes, I mean, it was vaguely designed to be the Project on a different label… (Laughs) …and to a certain extent, we succeeded, but for whatever reason the album didn’t really hit the big time. But I was pleased with it.
BE: So when it came to picking vocalists for The Alan Parsons Project, did you have a rolodex? How did you come to decide who’d sing what?
AP: It was normally just where, in a moment of inspiration, we’d be listening to the track and say, “Wow, would Allan Clarke sound great on this?” Or, “Wouldn’t Arthur Brown do a fantastic job on this?” Or, “Wouldn’t John Miles do well here?” It just dictated its own… (Hesitates) We often had no idea who was going to sing when we were recording a track, which is actually a dangerous thing, because it’s quite possible that we would record things in the wrong key for singers. But we were lucky in that regard. (Laughs)
BE: Were there ever any vocalists who you tried to get but weren’t able to secure?
AP: I think in the Project days we only found one. It was a female singer who was…fairly big time at that particular moment.
BE: (Laughs) Who shall remain nameless…?
AP: I… (Hesitates) No, I think it can come out: we tried to get Bonnie Tyler, and there was a whole lot of politics and management disputes and stuff, and it never happened. Since then, I’ve worked with Bonnie. She actually covered a song called “Limelight” on her own album, and we did a live show in Spain. Actually, she performed at the same live show as our Eye 2 Eye album, but, uh, we decided not to include her rendition of “Limelight” that night. (Laughs) We had limited rehearsal time, and it didn’t turn out great.
BE: So when it came to recording the concept albums, were the concepts all in place from the beginning, or did they evolve into concepts while you were in the studio?
AP: A bit of both, really. We normally went into the studio with a concept in mind, and sometimes the initial concept would get distorted. Pyramid was a good example. We started that as a concept loosely based on witchcraft, but as we ventured into the pyramid area, we decided to steer toward that as the main concept. Pyramid power is nothing more than witchcraft, anyway. (Laughs) It was a fad, you know. It was perfect timing, because the pyramid fad was absolutely there at that time, with people spending lots of money on framed pyramids to keep bottles of milk under or whatever. It was extraordinary, really!
BE: What are your feelings about Freudiana?
AP: Well, that, again, started as an Alan Parsons Project concept album, and when we were close to completing it, this theatrical producer called Brian Brolly heard it and wanted to develop it into a stage musical, so we had to literally double the length of it and put new music in, do reprises, and, y’know, write songs for different characters and so on. So it developed from a single album to a double album, and then the feeling was at the time that it was not suitable to be called The Alan Parsons Project, so it became Freudiana, produced by Alan Parsons and with all the same people as The Alan Parsons Project. But it turned out that that was a huge marketing mistake, because nobody knew it was there. Had it come out as The Alan Parsons Project, it probably would’ve done a whole lot better, but as it was… (Stops suddenly, then laughs) Well, a vulture has just flown by my window right now. How’s that for vulture culture?
BE: (Laughs) Brilliant! So when you think of Freudiana, in your heart, do you think of it as an Alan Parsons Project album?
AP: Yes, I do, with the slight reservation that it was compromised slightly for the theater. If it had been purely a Project album, I might have done a few things differently. I mean, Marti Webb is a lovely singer and a good friend of mine, but I possibly would not have chosen her had it not been for her musical / theatrical output. And the experience of the musical itself was just a torture for me. It involved personalities and artists that I just had no time for.
BE: So did you and Eric Woolfson remain on semi-decent terms after that?
AP: Semi-decent, yeah. It was ultimately the reason that…I mean, Freudiana turned into a very nasty political battle between Eric and Brian, and it ended up being a year and millions and millions of pounds spent on legal costs, and I was sort of caught in the middle of that, and my income stream was cut off for a period. So it caused some bitterness, probably for the wrong reasons, but I think we were still friends. But in the business areas, we were miles apart. Also, it became…we were becoming separate musically as well, because Eric wanted to continue doing musicals, and that was the very last thing I wanted to do, so I assembled some of the previous band members and made my own album, and we took it to the road. That’s when the live Project got under way.
BE: I’ll tell you, I’m a big fan of the Try Anything Once album. It came out when I was working at a record, and I played it at every opportunity.
AP: And, of course, that was the album I was speaking of. Well, that’s good. Yeah, I’m pretty keen on it. There was David Pack again.
BE: And Chris Thompson. I loved him on “Turn it Up.”
AP: Yeah, we toured with Chris for…oh, a good year and a half, I think. Yeah, he was a great, fun man. Really good.
BE: Are you disappointed that the industry has changed to the point where, for instance, albums like On Air and The Time Machine didn’t necessarily get the kind of mainstream exposure that your previous albums did?
AP: Yeah, well, of course it was a disappointment. We’re now in a 3-minute download world, not a 45-minute album world. That’s the way things have gone. Yeah, I’m disappointed, but I accept it.
BE: Which of your later albums are you the most proud of, that would’ve had a better shot if we still lived in an album-centric world?
AP: I still think “Turn it Up” should’ve been a hit, and I think Try Anything Once should’ve been huge. It did okay. I mean, I think we did two or three hundred thousand, which is a lot better than we’ve done since… (Laughs) …but when you think that all the Project albums sold a million plus… (Trails off)
BE: Were you surprised to pull that Grammy nod for A Valid Path for Best Surround Sound album?
AP: Oh, a Grammy nomination is always a surprise. But I’m up there with Joe Satriani as the person who’s had the most nominations without winning. (Laughs)
BE: An honor is an honor, I guess.
AP: Oh, wait, my wife is saying that I’m no longer at the top. Someone else has taken over. But when you think that Pink Floyd have never won a Grammy and Led Zeppelin have never won a Grammy, you realize that there are some strange omissions in the Grammy hall of fame. By the way, Surround Sound seems to be dying. It’s there for movies, but for music, it’s really not happening. I’d really hoped it would take off.
BE: One of my friends wanted me to ask you if, before playing your records, you now preface them by saying, “Allow me to demonstrate the awesome lethality of the Alan Parsons Project!”
AP: Oh, puh-leeze! (Laughs) No, but the movie was actually quite a boost. It introduced my name to a lot of people that wouldn’t otherwise know it! It’s a kids’ movie, that’s why.
BE: Did Mike Myers tell you about the joke beforehand?
AP: He didn’t. I wish he had, but, no, it all happened behind my back. The first I knew of it was when a friend of mine said, “Go and see this movie, you will die laughing at a certain moment.” And, of course, I did. (Laughs)
BE: Of the classic Alan Parsons Project albums from the ‘70s and ‘80s, do you have a particular favorite of the bunch? Obviously, there are those that were more popular than others, but…
AP: Well, the first album (Tales of Mystery and Imagination) has always been closest to my heart, but I think Stereotomy would be my second favorite.
BE: Is there any album which didn’t work nearly as well as you’d imagined it would?
AP: Ironically enough, it’s Vulture Culture. (Laughs)
BE: (Laughs) Wow, we’ve really brought this thing full circle, haven’t we?
AP: You might not want to put that bit in the article about International Vulture Awareness Day. (Laughs) It was just such a difficult period. I was finding that Eric was being more…what’s the word? He was trying to take a greater role as a singer and a co-producer, and he was…I hesitate to use the word “interfering,” but I got to the point where it wasn’t worth arguing the point sometimes, and as a result of that, I think the album ended up being compromised. There are a couple of good tracks. I think the title track is okay, and I think “Days are Numbers,” which was one of the rare occasions when I wrote melody and some of the lyrics as well. So that was a genuine co-writing situation. I’ve always given Eric credit for being the main songwriter on the Project.
BE: Plus, you had Chris Rainbow singing on that track, too. One of the great underrated singers, I think.
AP: Oh, yeah, he’s desperately underrated. He’s so good. Especially his multi-part harmonies. He’s such a genius with that.
BE: Would you ever have believed that “Sirius” would become a signature song for the Project?
AP: (Laughs) No, but it’s very nice. Did you know it got played at the Super Bowl? Once again, that’s another phone call I have to make! (Laughs) Where’s the money for that?
BE: And my 5-year-old daughter knows it because it was in “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.”
AP: That’s right! Yeah, it’s been great. It’s arguably one of the most recognizable pieces of music out there, but the unfortunate thing is that most people just know it as a piece of music. They don’t necessarily associate it with my name. It’s the Bulls theme, that’s what people know it as. (Laughs)
BE: Well, I won’t keep you much longer, but I just had a few questions about some of your engineering work. Is it true that, after working on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, they also asked you to work on Wish You Were Here?
AP: Um…there’s an element of truth in that, yes. Pink Floyd offered me a job after Dark Side of the Moon. They said, “Come and work for us full-time, do our live show, be our engineer.” And just at that time, I was starting to get involved in my own production, and Pilot’s “Magic” came out. So, yes, they asked me. They didn’t specifically ask me to be the engineer on Wish You Were Here, but had I accepted the job, which was a very generous offer at the time, I would’ve been. It was a difficult decision to make, and, obviously, I made the right decision, but it’s sad that we only made one album together. We worked very well together.
BE: If you and I were to listen to Dark Side of the Moon together, are there particular bits where you can say, “That’s mine, I had that idea”?
AP: The clocks. The clocks were my idea. And Clare Torry’s vocal was my idea. I was the one who brought her in. They just said, “We need a great singer,” and I said, “I know one.” (Laughs) So, yeah, that was another. But, you know, it was a team effort. I hear me in countless parts of the album, but those are two specific points where I can say that it would’ve been different had I not done the album.
BE: Looking back, even with all of the people that you’ve worked with over the years, do you still get a little giddy when you think, “I worked with the Beatles”?
AP: Oh, totally, yes. (Laughs) Who wouldn’t? And I still remember the day that I walked into this room with Glyn Johns, George Martin, and four Beatles. I must’ve been so red-faced and shaking. But I got over it. (Laughs) But what a tremendous boost to anybody’s career in recording, to have done that.
BE: Do you ever consider stepping back into doing the occasional bit of engineering or producing?
AP: Well, I’ve been essentially engineering this DVD, the sound mix of it. But the dubbing process for the DVD is actually incredibly complicated and time-consuming. I mean, you’ve got not only the regular things that you’ve got in any documentary program, the mix of music, text, dialogue, and voiceover as well, but also it’s a program about sound, so everything to do with sound has to be articulate and well produced. So it’s taken a lot of effort… (Laughs) …but I’m just literally wrapping it up. We’ve pretty much wrapped it up this week, and I’m just putting a couple of finishing touches on it during the coming week. Then it’s off to the factory!
BE: Excellent! So, now, the whole Alan Parsons Project catalog has been reissued and re-mastered, correct?
AP: Yes, everything’s out there, and with bonus tracks as well. It was released over probably a six or nine month period, but, yes, everything’s out there…including the first album, which is on another label. A rare collaboration between labels to get the entire catalog out there.
BE: Well, Alan, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you, and I hope that “All Our Yesterdays” doesn’t turn into a one-off. I’d love to hear more from you.
AP: Oh, good, thanks! There is interest in an album...
BE: I’ll keep my fingers crossed that it comes to pass.AP: Thanks so much!