Richard X. Heyman
How did the music that makes up “Actual Sighs” come together, and then why revisited all these years later?
RXH: The songs on “Actual Sighs” were written way back in the ‘70’s and early ‘80s. In 1983, I decided to record my first album. I didn’t want to shop around demos to record companies anymore, so I plunged right in and looked for an affordable studio. I found a guy on the upper west side of Manhattan who had an 8-track recorder in his living room and that suited me fine. I began laying down tracks culled from a batch of 35 tunes chosen for the record. Six songs into the project, I realized I wouldn’t be able to record any more songs because I still had mixing, mastering and manufacturing costs ahead. So I stopped at six songs and put those out as an EP called “Actual Size.” When I started my next effort at the same studio, I had a whole bunch of new songs I wanted to do so those remaining 29 tunes were filed away in a folder where they stayed for the next 20 years. When I was moving out of my apartment a few years ago, I came across that folder and voila! There was what would have been my debut album – and then some – abandoned and forgotten. So I thought, why not? Why can’t I record my debut album now? So that’s what I did.
Tell us three of your musical heroes and what makes them so special
RXH: Well, it doesn’t get any better than Chuck Berry. I mean, between his influential guitar playing and those amazing lyrics, you’ve got most of rock’n’roll covered. Nothing can best cruising down the highway with Chuck Berry blasting out of the speakers. It’s euphoric. And he’s completely underestimated as a singer – great phrasing and tone.
The Everly Brothers totally do it for me. You can’t top that blend and those songs. The Beatles owe a lot of debt to the Everly Brothers. Those first half a dozen or so Beatles singles have Don & Phil written all over them, not to mention many album cuts. And Don & Phil looked so cool with those Gibson acoustics and those pompadours.
I grew up listening to a lot of Broadway show music – Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe, Gershwin. But my favorite piece of music bar none is the score for “West Side Story.” I love the original Broadway cast album, which I find superior to the movie version. Leonard Bernstein wrote the most beautiful and moving music I’ve ever experienced. I also like the symphonic dances from “West Side Story” which is a gorgeous orchestration of selected passages from the score.
Of course I could go on with musicians whom I admire: Dylan, the Beatles, Sam Cooke, Buddy Holly, James Brown, the Stones, Hendrix, the Kinks, the Beach Boys, the Who, the Lovin’ Spoonful, Freddy King, Little Richard, Phil Ochs, the Incredible String Band, Magic Sam, Sufjan Stevens, the Rascals, Motown, Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye, Laura Nyro, Goffin & King, Mann & Weil, Barry & Greenwich…
Are you very critical of yourself when listening to your work?
RXH: Extremely. Every now and then someone will write to me and say “Oh I love such and such song, it made me cry.” For which I’m very appreciative, but I think to myself, that song made me cry too but for a different reason! Like I should have done a different drum part or the mix isn’t right or why did I put that harmony on the verse or…
What was the musical environment like at the time while growing up? Lots of power pop music happening? What was the music that first caught your ear and made you say, “Hey, I want to do this.”
RXH: I started playing the drums when I was five. I was into jazz drummers like Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, but I dug all the rock drummers as well. I learned a lot just listening to Ringo, Charlie Watts, Dino Danelli, Keith Moon, Mitch Mitchell and Bobby Elliot, not to mention Hal Blaine, who played on a zillion great records.
When I first heard Bob Dylan, I was immediately taken with not only the words but the whole sound. I think Dylan on those ‘60s albums is a fantastic singer, contrary to what some people think.
What do you find works best for your creative process when bringing a song together? Does it evolve from jams, riffs, lyrics?
RXH: I find the most interesting and fulfilling songs are the ones that come while I’m just walking around New York City doing errands. A melody will pop into my head and I start singing it to myself over and over. There’s always that anxiety that I will forget it before I get home, but if it’s strong I usually can retain it. I sometimes have to go into a store that’s playing music, like a supermarket, and that’s a real test. If I can still remember the tune after hearing Abba, I know it’s meant to be. I’ve never written lyrics first except for on one song called “August” on the “Rightovers” LP.
For me, the greatest power pop album is “The Who Sings My Generation.” It is the epitome of melodic pop music being played with a lot of power. Though my favorite rock or pop album is The Beatles “A Hard Day’s Night,” the English version. Every moment is magic.
Richard X. Heyman (2011)
It’s been over 4 years since I last interviewed Richard X. Heyman, so I felt with his new release “Tiers and Other Stories,” it would be helpful to dig into his story here. This was informative and relaxed conversation about Richard’s experiences on making the album and his brief experience as drummer for The Left Banke (during the 1980’s at an aborted attempt at a reunion).