From the Hudson Archives: Graham Parker

One of the highlights of my decade-long run with Tempest Magazine occurred when I had the opportunity to interview Graham Parker. Like almost all of them, it was done via phone a few days before he appeared in Sioux Falls. The night of the show, Graham greeted me inside the club and said it was one of the most enjoyable interviews he had done in quite some time...and that I should send it off to VH1 as my intro stated that Parker should be the permanent host of their Storytellers interview/concert series.

Twelve years later, I was looking for some info on what Parker is up to these days, and my interview is still up on his website! I'm beyond honored. Here's the transcript of that conversation, which was held on April 3, 1999.

Tempest: Hi, Graham. This is a real honor to talk to you. I've been following your career for over 20 years now, and could easily ask you questions for hours.

Graham Parker: Please don't.

T: I'm not going to. I'm narrowing it down mainly to questions about the new record. I read that the idea behind Loose Monkeys came to you after discovering a box of cassettes.

GP: Yeah, the idea came before that with people asking if I had any spare tracks, or that I must have loads of spare songs. Really, I don't. I don't go into the studio and record a lot of superfluous stuff. A studio for me is a great place to get out of, you know.
So I had just a handful; the ones that are actually recorded with bands that were left over. So most of the stuff is demos. That's when I started thinking I could make an album. I had made a lot of demos in the '80's that were really pretty good material. Pretty interesting material, at least. When I do demos, it's not really a very sloppy affair. I know what I'm doing and where I'm going with it.
When I was in my place in London last summer I started rooting around and found a bag of cassettes sitting in the attic. I pulled them out and saw all of these titles and thought, 'whoa, here we go.' They sounded great, even on cassette.
Then it was just a case of tracking down the master tapes so I could do a professional job and not have tape hiss and stuff. Cutting them from cassettes would have been a real drag, but I found all the tapes. And everything was in really good shape. They had all been in storage in London in a climate-controlled environment. I just mastered all of the stuff and there were no major problems. I didn't have to bake any tapes, or any of that nonsense. It was all great. So there it was, I had an album.

T: The majority of the tracks come from a short period you had with Atlantic Records. Why was there never a record during that time?

GP: I think it was more of a miscommunication than anything. My manager was sort of trying to get me to work with the record company. I think that's a mistake for somebody who writes songs and gets their own direction for each album. I was lackluster about that idea, but I went along with it. And Atlantic really expected me to go into the trenches with them to find a way to make a really big selling record with them.

T: They obviously didn't know you too well.

GP: No. I just listened to what they had to say and played them the stuff I had written. They didn't really take to it. They didn't think it was strong enough, and they thought I should co-write with people. I had about 20 songs, and then I wrote the songs that became Mona Lisa's Sister while this period was going on. And they still really didn't get that stuff. And I thought I had really taken it up a notch with this stuff. I mean I think the demos on Loose Monkeys is good stuff, but Mona Lisa's Sister stuff went up another notch.
By then, they sort of lost the plot, really. They were really rooted in that '80's sensibility where you have people help you to do this. Producers, and you get a drum sound. Like a drum sound was really important. My thinking then was that this whole drum sound thing has to go away. And maybe I should make a record that's really sparse and simple, and I should produce it so that I don't get somebody who really forces a sound on me that's trying to fit with Atlantic's idea of a hit record. Or anybody else's idea.
I was at that stage in my life where I thought things were going to get basic again, and I was right as well. They weren't right; they were wrong. So that's how it kind of transpired. It just fell apart really because once I said that I should produce myself and I should have an ordinary drum sound because the drums don't matter, the songs matter, that was it. They wanted to get me out of there. They thought that was really eccentric. So I was left with all of those songs, and I tend to write and move on. So that's why I didn't sort of pine over them and think I should make an album with this stuff. I just let it go and carried on writing new stuff for every album from then on.

T: What's really surprising to me is that for songs that are considered "lost," this is a pretty strong record. You mention in your liner notes that you feel that "demos are always better than records." Do you think that's one of the reasons this record stands up so well?

GP: Yeah, demos have a feel to them that is unrepeatable. And even though these songs haven't got drums on them, I am my own drummer in the way I play the acoustic guitar anyway. So it's not like they're rhythm-less. They really roll along; they punch along fine. That's why I can play solo. I can pick up the slack.
You know,12 Haunted Episodes is my favorite record. I don't know if you know that one.

T: Of course I do. I've got them all, Graham.

GP: Good. That one started off as a demo. That is literally a demo that I thought, "I'm going to do it this time. I'm going to add instruments to this." Much to the engineer's horror. And that's what I did. This kind of spaciousness to it, the feel, the looseness, as opposed to that terrible locked in feeling that you sometimes get in the studio; especially when you hear something back months later on the radio. It sounds very stiff, and very kind of considered.
Whereas the demo thing is not considered. It's like first takes where you're not quite sure what happens next so I'll do a chorus. No, I'll leave that chorus out. That's the way to go. And you get that feel happy, and you're not locked into following the drum kit. You're locked into the song. That opens up a lot of possibilities for feel. So I think it's good that Loose Monkeys isn't just professional studio outtakes with a band. I think it's good that there's a variety.

T: I want to talk about some of the individual songs and get your take on them. For example, in your liner notes you say that you wanted to give "Wherever You Are" to Michael Jackson.

GP: That's from the Real Macaw area, and that's definitely not one of my more hardcore rock 'n' roll records. I was definitely trying to get some soul balladry into things, and some more esoteric material. And to me, this song was too close to the edge for a Graham Parker album. I thought it was very commercial and very slick. I could just hear it sung by Michael Jackson as a ballad. It would have been right up his street, but as usual I never bothered to try to get it to him. I thought he wouldn't pay any attention.
So it just sat there and festered away.

T: You also make a comment about how Celine Dion could cover one of your songs if she was into performing well-written material instead of pop fluff.

GP: I don't think the Titanic theme is that bad, but it's still comes from what I call "rent a songs" sensibility. My idea of melodic structure is a kind of '60's thing that comes from the Beatles more than anything, which is a melody cutting across the chord sequence in a sort of angular fashion. And the same way that Motown did that, as opposed to these sort of soft kind of r&b kind of things, which is kind of her sort of thing. These people like her and Mariah Carey do a lot of very impressive vocal tricks. Their vocal chops are unbelievable. Whitney Houston as well.
But a lot of the songs to me are "elevator lite" in their melodic structure. "Wherever You Are" has a '60's sensibility in structure, and they don't do that kind of stuff too much.

T: I don't want to sound like a cliche, but I immediately thought of early '80's Bob Dylan when I heard "Tortured Soul".

GP: Yeah. I was definitely into that style at that time. I was really exploring that style very much, more than the kind of soul music style that I explore quite a lot. So, I thought "Dylan should do this," but I don't have the time to bother. In fact, he might think I was being funny.

T: You never know. In the last decade or so he has covered quite a few songs from other people.

GP: Well, it's out there now. So it's available for him to hear now, as opposed to being in an attic somewhere.

T: Another song that caught my ear was "Corporate Rock." The sentiments were certainly true then, but it's probably even more appropriate now.

GP: I suppose it is to a certain extent. It never goes away, does it? But there definitely was a style of music that could have been called corporate rock, and it was all the kind of Journey, Boston, Kansas kind of stuff that the youth of America seemed to think was really hip. "Play some rock 'n' roll, man." To me it was a bit of pantomime music.That was definitely what was going on with the record companies at that point. That was what they understood the most, you know. So that was a song that somebody had to write, and it's definitely along the line of a period piece.

T: Why did you decide to just sell this on the web?

GP: I didn't think I should try to clutter the stores up with it. There's been a lot of compilations out, and reissues and things. I thought let's just let the fans fight their way to this information. Let them work for it. Let's see what word of mouth does, and let's keep it on a small scale as well. I regard this as small scale, as opposed to an official album where a record company publicizes it and spends money trying to get it on the radio. Razor and Tie are the distributors only. I'm spending money. I paid for the freebie copies that have gone out and stuff like that. And Razor and Tie are paying for a few things, I'm sure, but I'm not saying to the them "why aren't you trying to get it on the radio?" It doesn't matter to me. It's not really the point of the record.
It's a great experiment. This is the time to check this stuff out and see how it flies. Eventually, Razor and Tie have said they'd like to put it out in the stores one day and that's kind of up to me. If it stops selling on the internet completely and there's nowhere else to go, maybe I'll let them do that and strike a whole different deal.
You know, I've had quite a lot of records out in recent years. Four for Razor and Tie, two studio and two live, and when you push these in stores, and stores are mainly interested in making money like anybody else. So the enthusiasm for opening the box and displaying them is pretty thin. I really didn't want to put them through the effort with Loose Monkeys.

T: Prince has received a lot of notoriety in using the web to sell his records, but in his case it's mainly just so he doesn't have to share the proceeds with any record company. In your case, I think you're perfect for selling material on the web. You've been around for a long time, you've got some hardcore fans who will buy anything with your name on it, and at this point in your career record labels don't really know what to do with someone like you.

GP: No. It's very difficult. There are a million artists who are singer/songwriters that are played on AAA radio, but AAA radio doesn't generate huge sales. I have to hand it to record companies like Razor and Tie. They're very enthusiastic about this kind of music, and getting it to the AAA format. And even though they know they're not going to get on the modern alternative rock stations, which is where the money is for rock 'n' roll (as opposed to the middle of the road "rent a songs" format, the adult contemporary,) they still plug away hoping that maybe someday 45 year old people will start buying records again. They're suffering from illusions, but it's good that there is still that enthusiasm to put the stuff out because god knows it doesn't sell.

T: One thing I was impressed with your web site is how much time you have put into it, answering questions, posting diatribes, etc. How energizing is it to have this direct contact with your fans?

GP: It's pretty exciting, actually. It's maybe a self-therapy thing as well, because you sit there and feel kind of free to blurt out any kind of nonsense. There's a few stream of consciousness things that hit me, and I just let it go as opposed to censoring it too heavily.
I'm oftentimes described as a "cult artists," which is a real misnomer. That's a kind of euphenism for "doesn't sell very much." A cult? Are people listening to me with black candles going, and wearing makeup or something? We're not talking about goth here.
If you're going to be called a cult artist, you might as well make it like a cult. And this is almost like a cult-ish thing, to send information out on cyberspace through fiber optics wires into people's homes. I mean, it's quite cult-like.
It's really taking that idea and actually capitalizing on it. Hopefully, people find it interesting, and obviously it rankles a people as well. I get a few comments that say I'm an asshole and to stop complaining. I sort of fight back to that, so you get a bit of stimulation going and it's a good way of keeping people in touch. On so many tours I've done people have come up and said, "gee, I just found out about this gig today." So now if you're online, all you have to do is hit the tour schedule, and you only have to hit every couple of months or something and you'll find out where I'm playing. You'll find out what records are coming out. It's information for people who really care enough to want to find out about it.

T: I want to ask you a little bit about the past, but I'm not going to deluge you with questions about every single album you're released. It's my opinion that the records that were released on RCA (Mona Lisa's Sister, Human Soul, and Struck By Lightning) are very underrated. Do you agree with this assessment?

GP: Actually, Mona Lisa's Sister and Struck By Lightning are records that people rank right highly. Mona Lisa's Sister actually sold quite well, but by the time we got to Struck By Lightning I think the record company had changed hands, the usual thing and nobody did very much, and they wouldn't have gotten it on the radio anyway. But In Europe, Struck By Lightning sold pretty damn well and I was out opening for Dylan for awhile. I went down really well and shifted records afterwards. And then I did my own solo tour right after that, and it was pretty successful in its own way. So I don't think I got a bad deal out of those. It's not like, "wow, why don't people recognize those?" They do, I think.
And Mona Lisa's Sister is being reissued on the Buddha label, which is pretty cool. And I think they may be going for Struck By Lightning, as well, which is great because the stuff has been out of print from RCA. They just kind of move on, you know, like big record companies do if it's selling below a certain number every year. They just delete it.
But luckily there are all of these little labels out there, and a lot of these people are fans of mine who worked for big labels years ago. And I think this is one of the first things they're putting out on the reformed Buddha label. So I think there's great appreciation for it, which is highly gratifying.

T: I guess when I say they're underrated I'm talking about whenever you read a history of Graham Parker, it's always Squeezing Out Sparks and Heat Treatment, and you don't see too many mentions of the newer records.

GP: You're right. You know, Heat Treatment is not my favorite album. I think there's some lame material on there. Mona Lisa's Sister is a far more powerful and stronger record I think. But at the time, Heat Treatment was like an amazing thing that in 1976 somebody was making music like that. And Squeezing Out Sparks transcends the medium. I don't think there's anything as good as that by anybody anywhere. And I don't even take credit for it. I don't know what happened. I blacked out.

T: You said earlier you think 12 Haunted Episodes was your best record. What do you think is your most overlooked record?

GP: I think the ones that are overlooked deserved to be. Not because they were weak, but because they were kind of in-between. You have to make in-between records to get to the ones that really have a great resonance. It's impossible for me to dictate that. I write a bunch of songs and I know when they're credible and when they're good and when they're interesting and when they inspire me enough to make me make a record.
Human Soul is a very interesting record. It's very quirky, but it doesn't have the depth of Mona Lisa's Sister or Struck By Lightning.
And Burning Questions as well. That's a very interesting, very edge-y record. But I don't think it has the emotional consistency of 12 Haunted Episodes. That record to me has a great emotional and musical consistency. It's the kind of record that I always wanted to make. I don't suddenly panic and do a rock 'n' roll song, or an r&b song or something like that. I stick to the program, and everything really joins together. It's like the cliche, a song cycle kind of feel. And that's rarely achieved by me. I generally write a lot of disparate material and call it an album. And that's not as satisfying, I think, as the real inspirited thing. Which is very hard to come by.
So I don't really worry about records that are less rated than others. I have such great fans, even though some records may have a much smaller base than others, and those people are really into it. There are people who really dig Human Soul, and people in this country who first heard me with Another Grey Area, which the British said killed my career. It was the end of it. You're out of here, pal. And it wasn't until Mona Lisa's Sister where they said, "I guess he's not that bad." The British are such miserable bastards. They're really hateful.
But Another Grey Area was pretty well received in America. People look back and say it's not very good, but I remember a lot of good reviews, even Rolling Stone gave it a good review, and you'd think they would be the first to say, "ouch. This is really slick." But it got a good review, and it sold okay. I'd die for those sales now...and so would about 1,000,000 other acts over the age of 10. It's nothing to really worry about.

T: One other aspect of recent years that I find interesting is your use of the Figgs. I've always said that I'd like to see veteran acts hook up with a young, hungry band, and you did that with them. Was that a fun tour?

GP: Absolutely. For one thing, I'd just let them play and did singing. I played guitar a bit, but mostly I got back to stalking around stage a bit, acting half my age or trying to. And they were so powerful. The Last Rock 'n' Roll Tour, to me, is the best live album I've made with a band. The Rumour stuff, obviously it's the Rumour so it's a pretty high level of musicianship. But I don't think the live albums they made were as good as the Figgs one because we stuck with the arrangements so closely. With Live Sparks and Squeezing Out Sparks you don't know which you're hearing half the time. Which one's which? It just doesn't go anywhere with it to me. It's just incredibly intense, which of course is very exciting.
But me and the Figgs, I think there was a different sound. A different band, a real four piece garage band. They were just a great band.

T: When can we expect to see some new material? Are you working on a new record?

GP: No. I've just written a lot of stuff. Loose Monkeys has kind of taken over my time. Once you start looking at a tour, it's kind of all encompassing. I'm sort of held back a little bit.
But what I've got to do sometime this year is get into a demo studio and record all the stuff I've written, and do overdubs on it. And then think about doing an album, and think about a record label, I suppose. I'm not officially with anybody, really. It'd be great to do it on the internet again, but you need a lot of advance money to make a record. So that's where the record company comes in. So what I'm going to do I have no idea. I've got to record songs in demo form and then get inspired. That's what happens. That's the process.

T: In one of your rants on the internet you said you weren't going to tour America again. Now here you are touring.

GP: I know. You should really check the site because I just posted a new "Thoughts From Chairman Parker." And it's a little different because it's observations on all of these gigs. I think when I got to Sioux Falls I wrote that I didn't know the name of the club, and then my comment is that I didn't even know if I spelt "Sioux" right. I had no other comment because I've never been there or played there. At some point I think I was talking about going to Chicago. I said "why the hell am I doing this. Last year I said I'd never tour again. I shouldn't be touring. There's not enough people coming." And at the end of it I said, "are you insane, man?" I guess I must be.
I think the solo thing I just enjoy a lot. It expands the material and give it new breath and new life. And the fact is that it's nice to know you're wanted. My agency tells me that people want me to play, and there's gigs and offers. I'm like, "why are they booking me? I've never pulled anybody in this town." And they say they'd rather have somebody like me than somebody that was a big success two years ago because now nobody wants to know them.
So the club circuit is kind of gratifying, and I guess like any artist I need my ego stroked. That's the truth. You just have to have that to carry on. If it wasn't for ego I would not be writing songs. It's like, "God, they want me. How can I refuse?" I'm stuck with it pal.

T: Well, that's all I had. Like I said, I could sit here and ask you questions forever, and I know how bored you'd get with that.

P: I think you covered the important Graham.


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