The Best of the
TVD Interview 2013:
Van Dyke Parks

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON SEPTEMBER 19, 2013 | Van Dyke Parks is simply one of our great American originals. Let’s see, there’s his work arranging “The Bare Necessities” from the Disney animated classic The Jungle Book, his involvement in the shaping of the once lost but recently recovered Smile from The Beach Boys, his own string of wonderfully individual albums (never has he made a bad record), his brilliant and integral contribution to Joanna Newsom’s masterpiece Ys…the list does go on for a while.

But that’s all a matter of the public record, and Mr. Parks has a pair of recent projects, Songs Cycled and Super Chief, which show he’s still very much on top of his game. He recently took time to discuss these records with us, and his thoughts prove to be as stimulating as his music.

So, the website is called The Vinyl District?

Yes, that’s correct.

And you know that I have championed vinyl in three…well let’s see. Last year there were three reissues in vinyl, and this year there was Songs Cycled and Bella Union put out Super Chief, which is now in limited availability in the United States. And they are beautiful to hear, and I’m happy to have once again connected with vinyl.

The recent records you’ve released, more than just sounding fantastic, they look fantastic as well…

Well, I think there is an absolute iconic value to vinyl. I remember now that I was the last vinyl pressing at Warner Brothers before they dived feet first into the CD era. And that was with a record called Tokyo Rose. That was the last vinyl album produced at Warner Brothers Records, and we’ve seen what happened in the meantime.

Everyone was very enthusiastic about the CD, but the first thing that I noticed, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the sound of CDs, but my first reservation about the CD was the miniaturism of the artwork, that all of a sudden we couldn’t read the liner notes or the liner notes had to be left out because there wasn’t enough space. And to me that was a significant problem with the CD era, which of course has come and gone as a principal market force. It’s downloading now, but vinyl is back, and vinyl is back certainly not for any reasons of sentimentality, but in fact, because it’s better. It is still the finest way to reproduce music technologically, and to me the artwork is hand and glove with that listening experience.

I found it striking that the 7-inch records that you released on your Bananastan label, the music of which now makes up the Songs Cycled LP, featured sleeves by such artists as Ed Ruscha and Art Spiegelman. The visuals and the music come together into a great package, making it even more enticing to own the records.

Well, pardon my arrogance…or what sounds like arrogance, but I set out to make objects of art. That’s one of the reasons I embraced the 7-inch format. The sleeve art would determine the validity of my claim, to have achieved that hope, which was to have made an object of art. If you think for a moment that having the signature value of Ed Ruscha is anything less than a triumph you’d be wrong because Ruscha is the preeminent artist alive today in terms of his commercial impact. For a living artist to have achieved such validity is amazing. The fact that I knew Ed Ruscha when I was a brunette and he was too, when he was going to Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, is phenomenal, and I decided that I would take full advantage of that reunion on the record he graced called “Dreaming of Paris.”

There are a limited number of those 7-inch singles still left for serious collectors. They are limited because I threw my entire passion for these songs into the construction of an album, Songs Cycled, which I’m also very proud of. I’m proud of the fact that without much prefiguring, or without the matter of having a concept, I developed an album that I think has a great deal of coherence, and it’s all witness to a certain time in my life and the understanding that I developed from some good and bad events around me.

That coherence definitely shines through to me. I think Songs Cycled is fantastic. And while it’s surely a look back, the album also deals with current events, and in a way that’s kind of different from your previous records.

It’s interesting to me that songs that may not sound like a signature of a certain time become by definition timeless, and I would hope…You see, here’s my hope, that the songs that I work on and the recordings that I do have more than an appeal to high fashion for beautiful people, because I’ve found in my short life that beautiful people can be very boring. I’m not always a complete success story when I present a song, but it’s interesting to me how sometimes I get away with being in the margins of popular culture, somehow surviving faint praise.

Turning to Super Chief, since it has its own unique concept, how significantly did the making of that record differ from the making of your prior albums?

Well, it’s interesting that the motives for Super Chief are completely self-serving. In anonymity behind the curtain, I’ve done a great deal of musical work to support my family, to send my kids through school, to get them through college, where they triumphed and landed on their feet and are now adults.

Let’s say in the span of two decades, I’ve made music for movies that under horse’s hooves…the roar of the crowd…the voice-over…the fisticuffs…the gunshots…a lot of the music that I’ve done has not really been heard. And some music that I’ve done…I would say I’ve done some A-list work for some definitely B-list movies, better forgotten.

And in other cases I found music in my archives that had never been heard by anyone at all, well other than the performing musicians, because those movies didn’t come into release. So I took the entirety of this recent work from film scoring and decided to collect it in illustrating an entirely different story. And the Super Chief album is illustrating my trip to California in 1955 by that beautiful luxury liner the Super Chief that came from Chicago, I started out in Princeton, New Jersey and went via Chicago to Pasadena, California, and it was a three-day trip, And that immersion in transcontinental travel and all that it suggested is not something that anyone can experience today fully the way they would in the ‘50s for example, and I wanted to illustrate that in a record, and I wanted it to be a good record, and I wanted it to be on vinyl.

Inevitably, it will take different forms and must be available to other people, there is some cost recovery…it is orchestral. But Super Chief meant something to me that no other record did. It was absent my voice. So no longer did I have to be held hostage by the way some music reviewers might feel about the words I was saying. I was almost liberated in being considered as an instrumental composer, so this was a great opportunity for me. And you know, it wouldn’t have happened without Bella Union in London. They wanted me to do something special for Record Store Day, so we printed up 800 copies of Super Chief and started there, and I believe that if it all pans out the way I have hoped, that it will find a reprint in the United States for a larger audience.

That would be great.

And just for the hell of it Joseph, to promote these records, and I really appreciate being a part of the efforts at The Vinyl District because I’m not well-known, and such publicity will help me to sell this record and get consideration from people who’ve never heard of me, and why should they have, but to promote this record I also tweet and Twitter @thevandykeparks. After I finish the crossword puzzle I always dream up another self-promoting sub-anecdotal quip to carry me through the day. And this is all to say that I appreciate your attention.

Well, we certainly appreciate all the music you have made over the years. It seems that the idea of documenting your movie music came before the idea of exploring that train trip?

Yes, but you see the thing is, it’s more like chipping away at marble, to discover something that was really statuesque. It was a painful decision to decide what not to include. Super Chief was really a matter of reverse engineering, something the Asians have been celebrated for, the powers of reverse engineering, and it was such a matter of discovery because the record is filled with American vernacular, folk music orchestrated. That is, extemporaneous roots music themes from the aural tradition have always been interesting to me.

I was ten years old in 1953 when my family built a house in the Smokey Mountains of North Carolina. In the Appalachian Mountain chain is where folk music really thrives, the Celtic music traditions and so forth, and I really fell in love with it. And also studying music, I started to pay attention to people who had orchestrated folk music.

When I went to Carnegie Tech in Pittsburg for example, at the age of eighteen, Aaron Copland came to teach a class, I got an A from Aaron Copland, how about that, and someone asked Copland “what is American music?” And Copland responded that American music is music that was made in America. So that took a lot of the smoke and mirrors out.

I don’t worry so much about being branded Americana, that’s okay with me, for it means a lot of things. It’s a vast landscape. But there are a lot of people who’ve made folk music through an orchestral environment beside Copland. Ralph Vaughn Williams, Percy Granger…Maurice Ravel in his “Piano Concerto in G,” you can hear echoes of Harlem. In a piano concerto, from a Frenchman? Also Martinů, the great Czech composer, with “La Bagarre.”

Jazz made a global impact. This American vernacular is something that I’ve inescapably used in my own compositions for film. You hear many repetitions of a piece called “The Water is Wide.” You hear “St. Anne’s Reel.” You hear “I Ride an Old Paint.” You hear Low Church hymns and music that accompanied riders on horseback to the frontier. I wanted to capture all of that, even a taste of indigenous American Indian music. It’s all there, and it’s as if I never abandoned a musical legacy in pursuit of a film scoring career. To put my kids through college, I found myself somehow or another inescapably sounding American, and I think that can be felt in this transcontinental voyage.

Well, in reading about Super Chief, I found it interesting that in The Swan, the film you appeared in after arriving in Hollywood, you remarked how it struck you that the film’s composer Bronislau Kaper was dressing up Hungarian folk themes in orchestral settings, so it does seem apropos that the documentation of your train trip and your film scoring career have come together in that way.

I’d like to brag and say that it was a concept, but it wasn’t. I’ve never had a concept for a record. But the thing is, when you chase your dreams, your wildest dreams, they take you to a place you never would have expected to go. And in this case it just finally appeared to me that that’s what I was doing. I was basically crossing this country.

It’s something that I intimated in Smile with Brian Wilson. It’s who I am. I am an exotic in a strange land, this California. It’s strange to get up on Christmas morning by a palm tree in a heat wave. I haven’t quite adjusted. But what I remember is who I am. That’s my particular case. And I must admit my memories are glorious, even when they are fiction.

For example, the boyhood that I had was beyond my powers of expression, to be the youngest of four boys, all of whom played music together. I had a great life, and a lot of that boyhood was in the books that I read. I find that’s the case with many people…that their youth can be found in the books that they read. And in this case, that trip that I took from New Jersey to California.

Did you find your career as a film composer fulfilling at the time, or was it something you regarded more as work?

Well, that’s a tough question, and that question has occurred to me many times, of course. Songwriting and film composing are two totally different arenas. Songwriting suggests the presence of personality. You create in a song, in many cases whether you want to or not, you create a persona that never existed. You create a situation that may be entirely imaginary. Or you create a point of view about a real event. But that’s what songwriting is, and it’s filled with personality.

Whether it’s Gram Parsons or Dolly Parton, the list is endless. Whether it’s a new man or a haggard man, songwriters are personalities. And a songwriter creates a persona, and in Randy Newman’s case, he says that’s not me, the guy who calls people rednecks, the guy who ridicules short people. No, that’s not me, says Randy. Randy is operating under the assumption that that person in the song is not himself. But what that illustrates is that songwriting is inescapably filled with the power of personality.

Film scoring on the other hand, requires the absence of personality. You’ve got to be nobody if you’re going to write film music. Suppose somebody crosses the screen with a ghetto-blaster on his shoulder, rapping it down in the ‘hood. You’ve got to do that. Suppose two people’s lips meet who aren’t really in love, and need a roomful of romantic strings, so the audience will believe they are in love. You’ve got to do that, as a musician. So in short, film scoring is tremendously demanding in the fact that it is absolutely necessary for that person, who is the last one on the production’s ladder, trying to make it all make sense with a musical coherence. Both of those jobs are epic, they’re both equally challenging and entirely different, and to say that I have a favorite one, I would say no I don’t. I fear them both. I’m just as ill equipped at both. I know that I don’t know.

For example, I know that I don’t know how to write a song. I’m not prepared to write a song by anything that I’ve done before. The way has to be found, it can’t be told. Songwriting is that challenging. Though it looks like a miniaturist’s job, it’s an epic musical challenge, as is film scoring. There is one area…I’ve told you two areas, songwriting and film scoring, those are two areas where I find I have a love-hate relationship, with all that it entails, but that’s just because it’s so frightening. It’s so daunting. To follow in the footsteps of all those magnificent composers who precede me.

But if had the poison of choice, the way I’d like to go out is the way I came in, the way I came into vinyl, for example. It wasn’t as a songwriter, though I wrote my first song in 1963, the year that Bob Dylan came out with The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. He gave a lot of people around him the false sense that they had some ability as songwriters. No, I’ve struggled as a songwriter, struggled to please others and yet be true to myself.

But if I had the poison of choice, as an occupation it would be that thing that fascinated me at the very beginning, and that was the job of arranging. This is a wonderful area for me. It’s not considered that important by anyone that I know who is obsessed with pop art and music, but just framing a piece to me is equally as challenging as writing it. But it’s the position that I prefer. I have enjoyed arranging like no other job I’ve known. And that’s the case with Songs Cycled and Super Chief, those are just opportunities for me, gateways into a real exploration of my own abilities, which is to make something that is durable, that will last. Arranging is almost like, not being the architect, but being the contractor or engineer in the event, the guy who knows how to hold up the ceiling. And that’s where I take my greatest pleasure.

You’ve stated before that you feel the arranger is far more important to the recording process than the producer.

Absolutely, and I think the only reason for that is I’ve seen producers as beneficiaries of ill-gotten gain. Many of them provide the drugs, or the money, or both to get the artist to do something. But if the artist has inadequacies or insufficiencies or needs decoration or simply would be blessed by some cosmetic appeal, the arrangers are brought in, and arrangers are paid nothing. A little, very little…it’s not enough to cover rent in a place without a pool in Los Angeles.

Arranging is an underpaid, underheralded, principal contributing aspect of record production. I love arrangers for the way they’ve suffered, and all for the love of music. And I’m so happy. I had just turned down a feature film, a big one. Amazon has started a film company, and I was offered their first film score. I turned it down for legal reasons. I didn’t find it a fair deal, so I stepped away from it. I’ve always enjoyed that expression I’d rather be right than President, and that’s how I feel about jobs, I always look at them carefully before I agree to take them. So for about twenty-four hours I was without a job, a very daunting reality to a seventy year old man who has no thoughts of retirement.

But yesterday, another arranging job appeared, this one for a group called Efterklang. They are a Nordic group, I think they are a combination of Norwegian and Danes, and the music is absolutely delightful. So when we hang up the phone, I will be pressing on to what it is that I love to do, which is arranging. Making music, being a pivotal part of it, and without a care for being noticed. Being noticed is not why I came into music as a profession. It was to glorify my maker.

To change course a bit and touch upon a subject mentioned earlier, in addition to your train trip and movie scoring career, Super Chief really does seem to be a commentary on changing times.

Well, there are degrees of abstraction in it… you see, a philosophy of creativity, if we use that highfalutin word, creativity, to me a motivation for an artist is not only insurrection and revolution and riot, the urge for agitation, for social improvement…all of those things move me, it’s not just a matter of arts and crafts, it has to do with social service, that’s why I’m in this racket of music, because I believe it changes hearts, and that’s what we need to do.

But in doing that, my philosophy in the arts is that my work should be confirmational in nature. Essentially, fundamentally confirming, making people happy and wanting to make love not war. If you need to brand me, it’s as an unapologetic counterculturalist. I believe in making love not war. So the music reflects that, and I have a tendency to develop what is beautiful and consonant, but every now and again such work needs to be peppered with a degree of what might seem at once unpleasant, so there’s a combination of those things at play in Super Chief.

It’s not all immediately digestible, and that’s for good reason. I don’t intend to put anybody to sleep with my work. I think my job is to throw some light, to get people out of bed, and agitate. I think that’s job one. I’ve done that throughout my recording career and with Songs Cycled and Super Chief as well. As much as I can, I put a candy coating on a bitter pill.

I try to keep an informed optimism in my work, the operative word being informed. Because I really think we live in dark times, and I like to take that into account. To take into account that only 48% of the American electorate believes in Charles Darwin’s theory. We have a lot to do, not so much to cure the world of its Islamic Fundamentalism, but we have a lot to do to cure America of its irrationalities. So my work is self-inspecting. That’s part of what I consider being a great American is, to discover what are my faults and what can I do to be a better musician, a better communicator, and a definite part of the solution to what ails this once great nation. And that’s what I do this for. (Laughs) I know it sounds like I’m really taking something on, but I really believe that and I’m going to take a bit of that into my work today for Efterklang.

On the subject of Americana, your approach to it is a little broader than that of many other musicians, and Super Chief really seems to incorporate American film into the concept.

Well, to drop a name here, I was at Jack Nicholson’s for dinner one night and he used the term film-literate. And I had never heard that term before, it sounded like an oxymoron to me, something like “military intelligence.” But in fact there is such a thing as film-literacy, and there is a relationship between film and music, and it’s a big one. And I’ve been totally attracted to it since I was a little kid and first saw Fantasia and The Wizard of Oz.

I’ve always been fascinated by the inseparability of the visual and the audio. To me music has filmic potential. And I’ve been accused of making music that is perhaps…well, a lot of rockers, people who are interested in bass, drums, and guitar, they’ll hold an intolerance for anything beyond. I’ve been accused of being elaborate, but in fact I really try, in fact I try harder than ever, to bring a great deal of economy into my work. But without apology, I pursue music as if it was visually inspired, and I think that it shows. It’s just something that I cannot hide.

I agree that it shows. Your music is very visual, that’s for sure. That’s one of the first things that struck me about it when I listened to copies of your first record and Discover America, those were of course on vinyl and I found them second-hand in record shops. So a final question as we wind down…do you still visit record stores and buy records?

Oh, absolutely, of course I do, and I have my son and daughter, both now in their thirties, and I’ve got to say oh my goodness how time flies, and they are building collections, vinyl collections. You see, you can fool some of the people some of time, and you can fool some of the people all of time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time, and a new generation has discovered that hi-fi is in vinyl. It’s a fact. The only estoppel is where the needle hits the vinyl.

By the way, when the needle first came down on a record, that record was made of carborundum. They had to make a decision in those days, when records were first made on their way to vinyl and even when vinyl was developed. Which was more expendable, the needle or the platter itself? It was decided by the merchandisers and their engineers that the needle was more expendable, and they decided to let the needle itself be sacrificed with constant replays hoping to preserve the vinyl as a permanent record of a performance. Isn’t that interesting?

Yes, very much…

It is, and this was the philosophy, it started in the age of carborundum 78 records that eventually went to vinyl. But, when I went to Warner Brothers and took a job in 1969 in A&R, I had a chance to read every contract that went through that I wanted to pull. Very interesting to me was that Warner Brothers Records in 1969 paid artists royalties based on 90% of the profits.

Do you know why that was? I’ll tell ya’, it was to disallow 10% for breakage…Vinyl doesn’t break. 78s did, they were shattered in shipment often. So, they knew how to cook books at Warner Brothers, and they cooked them, and they’re still at it with their mercenary attorneys. All of those record companies that still survive, unapologetic for the contract abuses. But it all relates to a central reality, and that’s the glory in sound that can come from a vinyl disc. And to that I owe all I am musically. That has been the central opportunity that has been given me, and I’m happy as a clam being right there today.

Well, this has been a great chat and I want to thank you for your time.

I want to thank you for yours, and anytime you come to California if things get boring just let me know, and we’ll catch a cup of Joe…

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