Your career spans many years as a studio engineer and artists, and although you did an album in 1970 it was mostly a novelty. But in 2013 you decided to seriously reinvent yourself on the other side of the studio glass with a tribute to Bobby Fuller. What made you decide to take this path from engineer to performer?
TM: When I first started getting into music my goal was to be an artist, and for the first little while, that was what I did even though predominately as part of a band. I knew I wanted to make records…in every way…writing songs, performing, recording (engineering), production, the whole deal. But the end goal was always to produce what I personally wanted to do…what I felt inside. In fact, when I first went to Stax Records as a “baby teenager,” when the receptionist asked why I had come, that was exactly what I told her, “To write, sing, play, record, produce…everything!” (which probably resulted in quite a chuckle). But along the way, whatever talents I did possess in the engineering and production end of the process seemed to always get appropriated by others, and I ended up spending most of my time using my abilities to make records for everyone else. That was great, of course, I worked with a lot of wonderful and talented people, and enjoyed every minute of it. But back there in the recesses of my mind was always that nagging feeling…wanting to do my own music as well. There was just never time enough to concentrate on it. Being an artist takes a lot of internal fortitude, as well as a lot of time.
But finally after all of those years and all of those “other” albums, I finally came to the realization that if I didn’t consciously make time for myself, for my own music, I would probably never get back to doing it. Fortunately I had reached a point in my career where I had the luxury to set aside some time for myself, and I was determined to do it. This didn’t mean that I wasn’t doing ANY other people’s records, I still do that a lot, but now I am able to pick and choose what outside projects I will take on, and make sure to integrate that into my own schedule as well.
I saw the Bobby Fuller Tribute album (“West Texas Skyline”) as the perfect opportunity to transition into being an artist again. Many of the songs were already well known, and I could almost do it as if I were producing “someone else” as well as being the artist. I wrote two songs for that album, and did ten associated with Bobby…it was a great way to “get my feet wet” again.
You know your way around a Moog better than most. Why nothing moog-like on your newer material?
TM: Hmmm. Hadn’t thought of it in that way before. I was fortunate enough to have learned directly from Bob Moog himself, back when he was starting to make the first commercially available Moog Synthesizers. And over the years I did play various Moogs on many other recordings, such as Big Star, Leon Russell, The Staple Singers, and many others. There is a bit of a Mini Moog on “West Texas Skyline,” and one or two small synth passages on “Heaven Knows,” but it didn’t seem to exactly fit in a production sense for most of what I wanted to do. I still have three Moogs (a Mini, a Memory Moog, and a Moog Source), and I will certainly be using them in future. But when I am deciding what instrumentation should go on any production, whether my own or someone else’s, there is just something inside that guides me to the instruments I want…so I wouldn’t force it on there “just because.” I would have to feel it was the right thing for any particular song. I do definitely plan to do a complete “Electronic Music” album sometime in the next couple of years…sort of Stockhausen-like (he was also a teacher and mentor), maybe a bit like what George Harrison did…it’s just something I feel I have to do…original compositions made of all electronic and Musique Concrete sounds, specifically formulated for that genre. It’s something I’ve meant to get around to for years. There will be a lot of Moog on that.
You are an impressive songwriter. Heaven Knows has an almost reverential quality. Is this your first attempt or have these songs lived with you a while?
TM: I have always written songs. That’s one thing I did make time for, even if there wasn’t time to record them…because I couldn’t help it. “Songs” to me…unless I am writing by design for a special or contracted purpose, such as someone else’s album or a film or jingle…are not something I “try” to write. They are just there, and I am capturing them. You could say there is a Muse, or perhaps call it environmental influence or maybe say there something almost paranormal about the process. I’m not really sure. Since my earliest days in music I have always written instrumental melodies (sort of “classical” in style) as well as pop and rock songs, even what some would call show tunes. I just love music, and it’s always going around in my head.
And along the way I have contributed a bunch of songs to the albums I was recording for others, whether my originals or as co-writes with the artist. One song of mine in particular (coincidentally named “Heaven”) was recorded by The Staple Singers, Joe Cocker, and the Scandinavian group Swift Rain…and all three went platinum. So yes, I do have a collection of songs written over time. But on both “West Texas Skyline” and “Heaven Knows” (the album), I for the most part composed new songs slanted towards each album’s philosophical goal. The actual song “Heaven Knows” was one of the quickest I have ever written. Immediately after a particular incident which affected me very deeply, I ran to the piano, and the whole song…chords, melody and lyrics…just flowed out in less than 20 minutes. And in fact, I recorded it that very same day, almost to completion. I only added a couple of later overdubs once the rest of the album had been written and recorded.
That song, along with another that followed quickly on (“It’s You”), became the genesis for the whole “Heaven Knows” album, and is why the album acquired that as the title. I wanted to explore the various aspects of human love and emotion, the stages one goes through when wrestling with these most basic and important aspects of being human.
“It’s You (Beacon)” is both wonderfully Beatlesque and romantic. Tell me where the idea for it came from.
TM: That song was meant to bring out of the soul the feeling of longing for one special someone, trusting that The Cosmos would be benevolent and understanding, and would help in making the dreams of love come true. It could be seen as the musical equivalent of a “Beacon of Light” or sort of a transmitting tower, which sends out inner emotions over some special wavelength to some special person…sort of like ESP or “mind melding.” And then wanting that the special person would receive the transmissions, know what was being felt, and would hopefully respond in kind. As for musical influences, I can’t deny that The Beatles have always definitely been one of my favorites, and of course they hugely influenced almost all pop music…and for sure all Power Pop music…which came after them. I was reaching for some George Harrison moments, some Lennon moments, and some Macca moments in this one. But also in my sphere of influence were both The Move and ELO. Jeff Lynne is another of my heroes. “It’s You (Beacon)” by the way was written right after “Heaven Knows,” was instigated by the same happenings, and was the extension of that song’s philosophy.
Did you take vocal training? Singing pop is a long way from the heavier rock vocals of “I fought the Law.” “Heaven Knows” is like a lost Beach Boys song.
TM: I have never had any formal vocal training, but I have certainly been lucky to have worked closely with a lot of really great singers, and I’m sure I have absorbed some things from watching and listening to them create and sing. Since you mention The Beach Boys, I will also admit that both Brian and Carl Wilson are amongst my most favorite singers. I have been lucky enough to have met them both, but Carl especially became a friend, and we talked several times about songs and singing and recording. My favorite way to sing is the head voice that Carl used on such classics as “Good Vibrations,” “God Only Knows” and “Darling.” I just love to sing that way, and fortunately can sometimes almost pull it off. But then as you point out, every song is different, and indeed singing something like “I Fought The Law” takes a very different mindset…and a different approach to vocalizing. For many years I sang on everyone else’s records, harmonizing, as part of the background vocal group, and even on occasion (this is a secret, so don’t tell) actually replacing a word or two, even occasionally a line, in other people’s lead vocals. Meaning I had to sound like them, not me. So over many years I got used to singing in different voices. And by the way, your description that “Heaven Knows” could be a “lost Beach Boys song” is one of the coolest things I’ve ever heard anyone say.
You knew Chris Bell (from Big Star) pretty well – he played on your first album right?
Tell me a little about your experience with him and Big Star.
TM: Yes, Chris was my best friend for almost ten years. I got him into the studio for the first time to play on my “Home Sweet Home” album. We worked together, wrote together, recorded together, worked on photography together. In fact we had several bands together, such as Icewater, Christmas Future, and Rock City. Rock City was more or less the progenitor group to Big Star. We recorded an album with me and Chris, Jody Stevens on drums, and Tom Eubanks, and it had a lot of the Big Star sound in an early iteration. You can hear that sound coming to life on that record. In fact, a couple of our Rock City songs (and actual recordings) ended up on Big Star’s “Number One Record.”
When Tom left and Alex Chilton came in, I decided to stay in the studio, not go out and play live shows, and Andy Hummel came in on bass. I played the keyboards and sang harmonies on the first Big Star album (and a bit on the second), and Chris and I were both working through the nights, recording it, doing the guitar and vocal overdubs once the basic tracks had been recorded. But I didn’t want to be seen as part of the group itself. I wanted that to be four distinct people in the photos and credits (copying The Beatles again). So we didn’t even credit other people on that first album, just the four guys. If it was good for The Beatles, it was surely good for us. ;~) Chris later left the group and was trying to do a solo career, both in Memphis and in England. In fact, he came to me while he was working on “I Am The Cosmos” and said that he just couldn’t get what he wanted on the recording, would I mind working with him again to complete it? I did pop in for a second and help add handclaps to his demo version (the one later released) during the guitar solo, but we had plans to do a lot more, to really make it more than just a cool demo, but rather a well-produced, well-recorded hit song. But I was all tied up with recording a ZZ Top album, so I told Chris it would have to wait. Then sadly he died in the car crash before we could get to it. So I have always felt that was a promise unfulfilled, and have deeply regretted that.
The first 5 tracks are originals and are my favorites here. Do you think you’ll do an entire LP of originals?
TM: It’s hard to say exactly. My first love is writing songs and performing my own, but I also like to occasionally interpret a great song by someone else. I would imagine though that I will soon do an album of all originals. There is another album already partly underway which is so far all originals, but it has a ways to go, so I can’t say for sure yet what songs will end up on it.
Is “Life Is Good (Cause URU)” dedicated to anyone?
TM: I wrote that song, or at least wrote the words and melody for it, after a trip I took to visit a special friend. Everything on that trip was just magical, the most pure fun I had ever had; every minute was precious, every dinner was full of laughter, etc. Also on that same trip I met a great musician, a guy named Siama Matuzungidi, who is famous in his native Africa. He had played me some of his songs that were in his native language, and I just loved the sound and feel of them, especially this one. I asked if he would like to collaborate, if I could write a new melody with new lyrics to his basic track, and he was delighted with that idea. So he gave me a CD of it; when I got to my home airport after that super trip, I put the CD into my car player, and by the time I had driven home I had written the melody and lyrics…it was the story of my fun experiences on that trip. I immediately took the track into my studio and recorded it, adding marimba and vocals. So I phoned him the next day and said, “Well, our song is finished.” Siama couldn’t believe it Done that fast! But this trip had made such an impression on me, it was easy, it just flowed out in real time.
So, yes, the song is indeed dedicated to one particular person, but I think it’s best if I not say exactly who it is.
Are you looking to play live to support the album?
TM: I would love to do that, and in fact I have tentative plans for shows in Memphis and Minneapolis pretty soon, with possibilities for some other markets, maybe including New York. I did play a few shows after the release of “West Texas Skyline,” and they all went over very well. We had eight musicians and two dancers. I really love playing live, there’s never anything else quite like it. Also, it”s very different being THE artist, right up front and center, rather than playing as a member of a band. The connections that are made with the audience are just spectacularly exciting. So, yes, I will, but no details as yet.
Tell me a favorite story about a recording session you took part in.
TM: Wow, there could be so many. I may have done more recording sessions than just about anyone, I’ve done so many for so long, and of course almost all of them are great fun. So, it’s hard to pick one favorite. Working any of the Stax sessions years ago was super exciting, especially The Staple Singers, working closely with Jimmy Page was almost beyond description. the same might be said for Billy Gibbons, and many others.
But one that really does stand out as different would be working with Björk when she was recording her “Post” album at my Compass Point Studios. She was a very special person, totally in control, completely in charge, and full of exotic ideas. She decided one day that she didn’t want to record her vocals in the studio, she’d rather record them standing in the ocean at sunset. So I got a generator, and a digital 8 track recorder, some headphones and long cables, and it was all trucked out to a place they call “Jaws Beach” near Nassau. And right at sunset, she waded out about 50 feet into the waist deep ocean, faced the setting sun, and sang several takes of vocals on this one particular song. When she came back, she had tears streaming down her face, and couldn’t stop crying and talking about how great it was. Then she was hooked, so the next evening she wanted to go down into a large cave near the studio and record there. She insisted on going in alone, but what she didn’t know was the cave was full of bats, and at sunset they were waking up and starting to fly around, ready to go out for their supper of mosquitoes. But she was a real trooper, and she stayed down there in the dark with the bats flying all around, singing her songs. Later when I solo’d her vocal tracks in the studio, I could hear the bats squeaking in the background. I could fill a whole book with session stories…
That’s a book I would love to read. Thanks so much Terry.