Don’t call it a comeback, and don’t call it nostalgia. It’s not often that I am intimidated by an interviewee, but Richard Barone has a musical resume like few others. Frontman of indie/new wave darlings The Bongos, Barone is probably best known for his iconic solo album, Cool Blue Halo, which was a critical smash in 1987, and effectively introduced chamber pop to the indie world. Richard recently gave Cool Blue Halo a box set re-release in honor of its 25th anniversary. But he didn’t stop with the usual re-mastering. Barone performed the entire album at one-night-only 2012 tribute concert, working with the same musicians, adding special guests Tony Visconti and Garth Hudson, and chronicling everything for a documentary, I Belong to Me: The “Cool Blue Halo” Story, which will see a special screening in New York City on December 10.
But Richard is more than an indie darling. So much more. He is a producer, director, songwriter, NYU professor, and author of a killer rock ‘n’ roll memoir, FRONTMAN: Surviving the Rock Star Myth. He has collaborated with everyone from Lou Reed to Moby to Donovan. And he continues to push the limits of his creative abilities by working on incredibly diverse projects—from scoring a documentary about Anna Nicole Smith to working with Pete Seeger.
“Never assume your fears are justified.” So says Professor Barone. In the face of one of the most devastating storms of the last century, I talked with Richard as he was walking around midtown Manhattan in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. His thoughts on music and creativity were positively inspiring, and his love of vinyl is evident the moment he speaks. The man even has dreams where Marc Bolan directs his life. You’ll seldom meet someone as passionate about music—and dispelling rock and roll myths—as Richard Barone.
A friend of mine was saying that he knew that things were starting to get back to normal when people in their cars were lined up behind a utility truck that was trying to make repairs, honking at it.
Oh yeah. I’m walking by a lot of that right now! Honking horns is usually the domain of cab drivers from other countries, mostly. [Laughs] I’m walking by a lot of Con Edison guys in fluorescent suits. It’s kind of interesting. It gives me an idea of how I should dress my band, actually. [Laughs]
Like a new DEVO thing going on.
Yeah! DEVO 2012!
I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of your box set—
Was it the complete box set or just the discs?
Just the discs.
There’s a massive box set with a tee shirt, two CDs, one DVD, a vinyl single and a hardcover book.
What made you decide to do the 7” vinyl single?
Well, I love vinyl. Of course, I started on vinyl and the 7” was the format I always loved. When we formed The Bongos, our goal—our concept—was never to release 12”, only 7” records. Because I like the way you compress the sound on the 7”; I like the 45rpm speed. When we did Drums Along the Hudson, our first album, it was really a collection of our British vinyl singles. That was the idea, because I like the format. I grew up on Top 40 radio and the idea of the song single on a 45 that’s compressed sound-wise and compressed time-wise to fit into a time slot was what intrigued me, so that’s why I like the 7” single. That’s a little nostalgia thing for me. But that’s the only nostalgia part of the box set for me—the vinyl—because that’s how I started; I wanted to make vinyl singles.
So, you must like that music is shifting away from albums back to singles.
Yes, I do. It’s not that I like or dislike it—it suits me, I’ll put it that way. My songs aren’t generally written in the form of a pop opera. They’re written in the form of individual songs, and I’m lucky when they string together nicely like Cool Blue Halo does. That particular batch was because… I explain it in the book, actually. I had a dream that Marc Bolan of T. Rex asked me if I was making an album or a collection of songs this time. From that dream I thought that maybe I should really structure the songs in a certain way so they would form more of an album experience. But I do tend to think more in terms of individual songs.
You said the 7” is your only indulgence in nostalgia, but does it boggle your mind even a little bit that it’s been 25 years since the original release of Cool Blue Halo?
I guess. It boggles, but I’m not really nostalgic about anything. I always have to do the work I’m doing. The only reason this existed is because Jay Frank of the label accosted me backstage at South by Southwest last year and reminded me that it was the 25th anniversary and that I should do something. And he was right. It was a great experience for me making the original album and why not celebrate it?
But I did not approach it with nostalgia—I approached it with “Let’s see how we can do it now? What would be different now?” That was my approach. So, we released the original and made it sound much better than we were ever able to do it before, because it was not really mastered as well…it was a great mastering engineer—not to criticize his work—I knew it could be better now. The digital converters that we have could make it better for digital and give me more fidelity for vinyl as well.
I knew we could do better. We went back to the original tapes—not the master tapes, but the pre-mastered mixes in the studio—we went back to that. They needed to be baked in the oven, of course. The ‘80s tapes were mad environmentally-correct, but the materials used and the materials not used caused the tapes to “shed” after seven years. You have to bake them so they get dry again. Then you can play them and they sound just fantastic, so we were able to master from those tapes.
To make the whole thing sound better and different, is it true you used a revolutionary digital guitar?
On this album I did not use my digital guitar. I tried to keep it very analog on Cool Blue Halo. I love my digital guitar and on my previous albums—like my last album Glow, which I released on Bar/None Records in 2010—I did use the digital Les Paul that I was involved with. But on this album, I knew that Cool Blue Halo was really about the organic sounds of analog. There’s [sic] no digital instruments on [the 25th anniversary concert]. It’s recorded digitally; it’s recorded in a very modern way. We deliberately mixed it and recorded it in a way that would be correct in context with any new record out right now.
So, that was a different kind of approach to the mix. It’s funny for me because my mother was very excited about the sound of this record; she’s reacting to that, too, because it’s just mixed in a different way—the new album. If you listen to the two side-by-side—the mix I did of Cool Blue Halo in 1987 and the mix that Matthew [Billy] did of the concert in 2012 —there’s a big difference in the way the sounds are. And yet, it’s the same instruments! There’s just so many ways to make them record something. In other words, we tried to do this in a new way.
That seems to be your MO. You’ve just been in every area of the music industry, whether it’s producing or arranging, and you’re always moving forward. Do you feel compelled to do all that so that you’re not pigeonholed into being a rock star?
Yes, because the artists that I truly admire are the ones who didn’t sit still. The ones that I enjoy once in a while are the ones that stay the same. But the ones I really admire are the ones that always change, like The Beatles, David Bowie… those are the two sort of linchpins of artists that I hold in high regard career-wise, who kept moving and changing each time they made an album. I try to emulate that in whatever way I can. I like my records to be very different from each other.
Do you feel like you’re an outlier now because you do that? It seems like there’s a greater push to replicate a sound and to make everything sound the same.
It was like that in the ‘80s! I’m not mentioning any band names, but so many bands that we liked and toured with, they made their money and made their mark by never changing. That was an ‘80s thing, too. That’s always been around. It’s a safe bet. I have never been one who liked safe bets with music. I think, why bother? I could do something else if all I could do was make “safe” albums. I would choose another line of work.
It seems like that’s a drive that most musicians have, but then the pressure to make everything kind of same-y gets to them in one way or another.
Right—from the record label. When I was signed to RCA, there was a little hint of that. But we still defied them all the time. They signed us as an indie act, then we were signed to a major suddenly, but we still tried to retain as much of our indie-ness as possible. I’ve been signed to maybe every major label at this point and I can deal with that.
There’s a movie called Mommie Dearest with Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford. In one scene, Joan Crawford walks into a board meeting at Pepsi-Cola and tells the guy, “ I’ve been to this rodeo before.” And I’ve been to that rodeo before—I can play their game, with record labels, but I also like to be my own person.
You’ve had so many seemingly serendipitous encounters in the music world…
Yes! I still do!
I don’t really know how to ask this question other than to get a little too simple, and ask what that’s like, but maybe the question is do you ever feel disillusioned because you’ve had so many instances of being in the right place at the right time?
No, but part of it is knowing where to be. That’s what I tell my students; it’s like you have to put yourself in the middle of where you want to be. If I want to work with someone, I find myself in the room with them. And then I can ask them if I can produce a record for them or something like that. It’s often about putting yourself in the right place, and as serendipitous as it may seem, sometimes there’s a thought process that goes behind it. Like, maybe I should be at this place because so-and-so may be there and I want to talk to that person. So, I think serendipity is part of it, but the other part is knowing where you want to be and being there.
I guess having lots of “serendipitous encounters” is the same thing as being called an “overnight success,” isn’t it? It’s never really that.
Right. It’s not really like that. I looks serendipitous that I met The Monkees or Tiny Tim or Pete Seeger or Tony Visconti. It may seem serendipitous. But really I must have planned to be in a room where that person was going to be that day.
Who would be the most difficult person that you worked with who is or was, supposedly, notoriously impossible to get in front of?
I think everyone I’ve mentioned I’ve heard that about. People have told me that everyone is difficult to reach. I don’t think it’s true. I disagree with that—and I believe that certain things like that are myths. That’s what my book FRONTMAN is about. It’s about myths. And one myth is I don’t believe in writer’s block and I don’t believe in total luck. I believe you have to plan it a bit. And I don’t believe that famous people are difficult to reach. Those are three rules that I use. There are others, too, but those are three.
Do you think that everything you went through as the frontman of a band was worth it, ultimately?
You hear all the sad stories of people who can’t handle being in the spotlight in one way or another. But you have taken those experiences and run with them, and are exploring many different facets of being an artist — as an author, producer, musician. When you’re teaching your students, is that something you try to impart to them?
Well, yes, but I want them all to have number one hit records also. But I also tell them if they’re doing something that they love, they’re already a success. Success can be weighed in so many different ways. True success is really doing what you want to do, basically. If you enjoy doing musical arrangements or production or performing, writing—any of those —there are so many things you can do in the music industry. There’s not just one thing. If you’re doing any combination of any of those that makes you happy, then really you’re successful.
Now, as far as the other side of it—having the chart success—that is very ephemeral. It can come and go. Artists who had hits for ten years ago, five years ago, or even two years ago—there’s no guarantee [of continued success]. There are more factors than we can control. My early managers always told me, “control what you can.” Which means… I go to the gym every day. I like to be strong, et cetera. That’s a thing you can control—your physical instrument and your writings skills and your instrument skills. All of those things are things you can control. The more focus on that is what creates success. That’s what I tell my students.
That’s a great philosophy to teach students, and it really flies in the face of the idea that if you’re going to choose an artistic profession, you’re going to starve.
[Laughs] Really, my book is about not starving. One thing that’s been serendipitous for me is that I’ve been lucky that I could always find those positions I described, in all aspects of the music industry. I love it, and I still do it all the time. I have a new record that I produced for Pete Seeger that’s out on Election Day. I also have a song that’s out on the same day that’s featured on an Anna Nicole Smith documentary that I’ve scored. Those are total opposite things; the track from the Anna Nicole Smith thing is completely electronic. There’s not one analog or real instrument on that entire track — it’s all synthesized. Now, it’s completely the opposite of the Pete Seeger song that I produced, which is coming out the same day, which is all banjos and acoustic guitars, recorded live on a boat. [Laughs] It’s quite a variety of things, and you don’t have to do one thing. If you love music, you don’t just love one kind of music, really.
Because you have such diverse tastes in music, and I am writing for The Vinyl District, I’m very curious to know what albums informed and influenced you as a musician.
If you want to talk about the technical aspects of vinyl mastering first, that’s a very interesting thing for me. I got very involved in mastering.
First, I just wanted to say that the art and craft of vinyl cutting is very important to me. I always got involved in the mastering sessions where you’d go and cut the record on the lathe, and I’d always watch through the microscope as the grooves were being cut to see the variation between the grooves. It’s an interesting art form—it’s a different art form that digital distribution, you know?
I’ve talked with a couple of different artists, one of whom you’ve worked with — Donovan, for example — who have said that they feel that analog recordings actually resonate with humans on a very deep level.
I love Donovan, he’s one of my close friends and I agree with him. I work with great filmmakers who believe that their movies should only be seen on analog film, and shown on a screen that reflects the light back to the audience. See, that’s the same idea in film—it’s a more “real” experience. The grain of the film, the texture of the actual material that the film is made of, that adds to the experience. That’s what vinyl does—it adds to the experience. The physical act of the needle into the groove with that friction is a sound that you can’t really reproduce with digital. A lot of records were designed to have that.
The early Bongos records were mixed for vinyl, and there’s certain things you do—like add more echo and reverb—because the vinyl requires you to do that to be able to hear the effect. When a lot of ‘80s or ‘70s records are transferred to CD from the original vinyl masters, they sound too echo-y. That’s not how they were originally intended to sound. A lot of what people think of what was the big ‘80s sound now, some of it is true, but a lot of it was that those records were never designed to on digital where you actually hear all the reverb.
I’ve always wondered about that. And, of course, gated reverb really defines the sound of that era…
Gated reverb was more of a trend. It was kind of the auto-tuning of the ‘80s. But the actual sound of reverb added to records… they kept adding it because when you put a record on a turntable, a lot of that would disappear because of the surface noise of the vinyl.
That’s really interesting. And when you think back to those early CDs, they pretty much uniformly sound awful.
I know! They sounded awful. That’s why Cool Blue Halo was a very subtle record and required a specific mix if it was going to be on CD, but it was the same mix that was used for vinyl at that time and all the formats. That came out on cassette also originally. There were three formats we used to deal with; records had to be designed to go on cassette, vinyl, and CD—all from the same master. Which is a little weird… that’s not really how it should have been.
The mastering process is fascinating to me, and the compulsion to have analog recordings. Do you think that mastering this way, as opposed to digital, will make a difference to future generations who will only really be exposed to digital recordings?
Yes, I think it makes a big difference. I’ve definitely had people come over to my house that had never listened to vinyl before. They are usually so compelled to buy a turntable within the next two days, and go to record stores and start buying vinyl. I have at least 4,000 albums in my apartment, and I love spreading them around to all my friends. I’ve had them and I think people should experience certain records on vinyl. Luckily, I have multiple copies! When I was in college, I worked at an on-campus record store and collected a lot of vinyl so I would get at least two or three copies of my favorites. I kind of have a good library.
I’m curious about the cover songs you chose for Cool Blue Halo. How did you choose those? What was your thought process?
I was waiting for you to ask about what albums influenced me. [Laughs] I love all The Beatles’ records, but “The White Album” was the one where I got more interested in their recording process and the sound of the record. That album was very important to me, and that’s why I picked “Cry Baby Cry” from that.
“The White Album” is so cool to me because every song is so different.
That’s right. I love that and when I got it, it was inspiring to me the way the songs were presented. They were all different production, and I loved the way it was on vinyl. I loved that it was on their own label. For those reasons, it is my favorite. That was the first album they did on their own record label, which is very powerful for an artist when you’re young. I started at seven years old on the radio, so when an artist’s record was on their own label… that was very impressive. That was the first that I was aware of. That meant that it was what they wanted to do, not what a record label wanted to do. The “butcher cover” was a statement on the way their albums were being butchered in the United States.
There is a trend now in the Beatle world where people now are appreciating the American releases. That’s fine, but they should realize that those were not what was intended.
David Bowie I always liked. The Ziggy Stardust album is the one that really got me, but then I went back and got his older catalog. I love his work and at the time [of Cool Blue Halo’s original release], I wanted to do a song that was obscure. And at that time, “The Man Who Sold the World” was obscure. And the only other person that had covered that song, ever, was Lulu in 1972 or something.
It’s very random, and Bowie produced it. It was a completely different arrangement. I wanted to do it because it was an obscure song. Later it was covered [by Nirvana] and it got famous again, but I was happy to do it before that.
When you recorded it again for the Cool Blue Halo 25th anniversary concert, did it take on any new meaning for you after the Nirvana: MTV Unplugged performance?
I don’t think about it. I like [Nirvana], I like them personally, I like their music. I met them in Seattle when I did the Cool Blue Halo tour. There’s nothing wrong with someone covering a song that someone else covers. It didn’t add any more meaning, though. The only thing that added meaning to me was having Tony Visconti, who did the original version, play bass on it with me. That added weight because he was there at the beginning. When they did those records, they were based around jam sessions for the band and Bowie, and [Visconti] was in the process while all that was going on.
And you’ve got a T. Rex song on there, too.
Yeah, T. Rex is probably my most personal favorite, because the world owns The Beatles. But T-Rex in America was never as embraced, and so for me they’re my personal favorite—because of that, maybe—was always Marc Bolan and T. Rex. He was somebody I could call my own, and an inspiration that I could call my own in my circle of friends. I wanted to do the correct Marc Bolan song… this is such a beautiful, romantic song, but it has a twist because he’s singing to an alien on another planet! Somehow I related to that on a few levels and also it’s very romantic, and I love romantic songs. I had to do that one. And the melody was so interesting.
There were so many British bands that were never really embraced in this country. And I have to say, on first listen, your music reminded me a lot of the Finn Brothers—another group that’s never really achieved mega-stardom in the US, but who are major stars elsewhere in the world.
I love them! Tony Visconti has worked with them as well and, of course, with Marc Bolan and David Bowie and The Beatles and with Paul McCartney on his Band on the Run album. He also produced Badfinger’s first recording. He was really involved with all of those acts that I admire.
I think, Richard, that you have forgotten more about music than I could possibly know.
[Laughs] I don’t forget very much, I’ll tell you that! I like big pictures, and I like the way things fit together in the big picture.
Given that you’ve done hundreds of interviews over the years, is there a question that you wish you’d been asked, but nobody’s ever asked you?
I’ve been asked almost everything you could imagine, really. When I speak to anyone, I will tell you [if I want to talk about something]—that’s why I asked you about talking about vinyl mastering—everything in life I go with the flow. I don’t really like to impose my own questions, but I will interject if I feel like it’s a subject that’s interesting to your readers. Believe me, even recently in the last few weeks, interviews can take turns that I never expected. With everything else, that’s one thing where I don’t try to spoil the formula. I think of it as a conversation; one answer spurs another conversation, and I think that’s what we’ve done.
Thanks, Richard. I’m really enjoying getting to know your music even better.
Thank you! Thank you so much, and I hope you enjoy the whole thing. I’m really thrilled about the way it came out. It was such a labor of love to do this. It comes at a really busy time, because I have many projects coming out this year. But this one is the one that took all precedence. We just stopped everything else and worked on this album for the entire summer. It was a beautiful process, really. We had a lot of images; the documentary is really nice—a few of my young friends made that. Also, the concert footage is beautifully filmed by a crew from Comedy Central who really do a great job with live capturing.
Enjoy everything! I enjoyed speaking with you.