Wednesday, September 03, 2014

ROBOTS AT THE FACTORY: THE ALAN HOWARTH INTERVIEW (Part One)



Legendary soundtrack composer, sound designer and pioneering synth maestro Alan Howarth contributed a beautiful track to my forthcoming compilation LP Whispers Through the Black Veil. We knew we had to do something very special to celebrate the occasion, so on Wednesday October 1, 2014 Howarth will appear at Portland, Oregon's historic Hollywood Theatre for a 35mm screening of Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982), followed by a recital spanning more than three decades of his cinematic work. Over the next few weeks I'll be publishing our recently recorded conversation in three installments, exploring all aspects of his creative development. Born in New Jersey, Howarth relocated to Ohio with his family in 1962 where he eventually gravitated toward rock 'n' roll before pushing onward into terra incognita. His early experimental band Pi Corp is widely considered to be one of the first Midwest electronic bands and their sound, a nebulous bridge between Hawkwind and Throbbing Gristle by way of total LSD psychosis, preceded the early development of noise and industrial music by several years. In 1979 Howarth landed in Los Angeles, California, where he continues to reside today, and soon embarked on a successful career in the film industry through an unexpected string of very fortuitous synchronicities. Along the way he would encounter cowboy accordion creeps, sock hops, Jaco Pastorius, murderous androids, Stonehenge, the Starship Enterprise and enough supernatural menaces to swallow humanity. But we're getting ahead of ourselves...

PART ONE: 

Dennis Dread: The track you contributed to Whispers Through the Black Veil is beautifully understated and haunting. It perfectly captures the taut minimalism and eerie textures I associate with your finest work. 

Alan Howarth: Thank you, Dennis. Kill a Whole Family is derived from the film score for Basement Jack. The music was created to underscore a scene where the serial killer “Jack,” who has been killing members of a small town by hiding in the basements of their homes until he feels it is time to strike, slices up an entire family one at a time and poses the dead family watching TV. It was composed while watching this scene playing synchronous to the composition, with every hit emphasized by the musical phrasing. John Carpenter composed all of our scores in the 80s pioneering this method, which he called an “electronic coloring book.” 

We’ll get to your legendary partnership with John Carpenter a bit later, but let’s begin with your earliest interest in music and your formative musical experiences growing up in Ohio. 

Ok, let’s go to the way back machine! In the way back when I was a kid, my first interest in music was actually a small accordion that I found up in the attic at my parents’ house when I was about five years old. I just remember sitting up there, not even picking the darn thing up yet, just kinda putting it on the edge of the table and letting the bellows move and pushing the keys and thinking, “Hey, this sounds cool! I like sound!” So I begged my mom to get me accordion lessons and the particular teacher she selected was a local cowboy TV star who also gave lessons. In his own way he was a somewhat handsome and virile guy. Anyway, I had about three or four lessons and at that time it was all about playing polka music...[hums a German waltz]...and the big trick was to finally get to the point where you could keep that going with one hand so you get two hands going. I remember going over to his house, mom took me there, and I finally got it together to where I actually had one song I could play with both hands. So I went down to the guy’s basement and I’m sitting there practicing before he is supposed to come into the room [hums simple polka rhythm]…and I’m waiting, and I’m waiting. Finally my mom comes in the room and she goes, “We’re leaving!” And I go, “But mom! Mom!” and she says again, “We’re leaving!” And we left. That was the end of my accordion lessons. I never knew what was going on, but eventually I asked mom. “Son, he was very inappropriate. He tried to put the moves on me!” So that was it. At five years old I was gonna be a budding accordion player, but the cowboy teacher put the moves on my mom. That killed that. 

Sounds like your first lesson in rock 'n' roll too. 

Exactly! So fast forward to about fourth grade when they gave the students a little musical aptitude test and the idea was to start a school band. So a letter came home and I remember putting that in front of my mom and going, “Ma! Ma! See? I’ve got some musical talent! Will you support me on this?” And she said, “Yes.” This was the 1950s and I remember looking at the entire school band instrument selection and the two things I really wanted was a guitar and a piano but that wasn’t in the band. The next coolest instrument was the saxophone, so I started out on the alto saxophone and eventually got it together and stayed with it from fourth grade on through high school. But my real thread through high school was being an art student. I was gonna be a sculptor/painter guy. I always had talent drawing and fooling with materials so I was thinking I was gonna be a visual artist. I was the president of the art club and was one of the favorites among the art teachers as someone who was really gonna do it. And this girl in the art club named Kathy said, “Hey, Alan, I hear you play saxophone. My buddy Dave has a band and they have a gig at the Catholic girls high school doing a thing called a sock hop,” – back to time warps, there was a time when the gym floor was this highly varnished thing that you weren’t allowed to walk on with shoes, so in order to have an event in the gym, like a dance, you did it in your socks. Hence the sock hop! – So I played this gig with them and it was a lot of big band stuff like Canadian Sunset and stuff like that. But at the end of the night he paid me $80…and my eyes went wide! I said, “Forget this art thing, I’m goin’ with music!” That started the whole thing. 

Howarth with mom Margaret, sister Bonelle and Cleo the cat in Cleveland, Ohio circa 1967.

Dave’s sock hop band started you on your path. 

That’s right. Dave wanted to have a rock 'n' roll band beyond the sorta Glenn Miller sock hop band thing, but he needed a bass player. So I pestered mom to buy me a bass guitar and I got a Pennington bass guitar, sort of an off-brand but decent enough that you could play it, and a Sears Silvertone amp and that was the beginning of rock 'n' roll! Now I was in! I quickly figured out how to play the bass and wound up in one of the most popular bands on the west side of Cleveland. We were one of the first of what they called “Beatles Bands.” Remember, this was 1959 to 1964 so most of the bands were what we called “Greaser Bands” and they would play Jerry lee Lewis and Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly and stuff like that and their hair was slicked back. All of a sudden we were gonna wash our hair and not put any grease on it and play Beatles music and Rolling Stones and all the British Invasion stuff. This was a band called the Tree Stumps and we would actually do dances back at the high school and get 1,000 kids! We were the rage, man! I went through a series of variations of the Tree Stumps and then myself and the singer, a guy named Woody Leffel started a band called The Renaissance Fair and we were into the San Francisco thing and played The Doors and Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service and Country Joe and the Fish and kinda went off in that direction. Eventually the original Tree Stumps got a new fellow named Michael Gee who later became Michael Stanley and they got a record deal with a producer named Bill Szymczyk who produced our later band called The Silk and another band called the James Gang which was of course Joe Walsh. Szymczyk went on to produce the Eagles, so there was this waft through northeast Ohio and we all made records on ABC Records. We opened for The Who on the Tommy tour and we opened for Cream on Wheels of Fire. At that time I thought I was there and we were gonna be rock stars but, still, it’s always back to did ya make anybody any money? Our record wasn’t a hit and eventually the band broke up and it all dissipated and that was the end of my career as a performance rock guy. 

So at this point if The Silk was opening up for The Who on the Tommy tour are we talking 1974 and 1975? 

1971 and 1972. Original line up on the first Tommy tour. 

Ok, right. I was thinking of the Ken Russell movie, but I guess that came out quite a few years after the LP. That must’ve been a wild time! 

It was great! It was just great. I got to meet those guys. [John] Entwistle was my hero and he gave me my first set of Rotosound bass strings. Before that we used Flatline strings and it was like [makes a dull plodding sound] and all of a sudden Entwistle gives me the Roto strings and, “GWWWWAAAAAAAA!!!!!” All the other bass players were going, “Man, you sound like a giant guitar! That’s not a bass sound!” And I would go, ‘Nah, but it’s so cool!” 

The Motorhead bass sound! 
That’s what everybody uses now. But I was always into being sort of a visionary or pioneering kinda guy. I eventually went through a long period of not doing anything but my own original music, like, “I’m not gonna do those silly [cover] songs anymore.” That’s when I got into synthesizers. I worked at a music store and became a specialist in instrument repair, both electronic and physical. I could fix guitars and I learned how to work on synths. I had two bands during that period and one was called Braino which was sorta like early Pink Floyd. We actually performed in quadrophonic. Our sound guy Brian Risner had tape queues of explosions and effects and we played in this little club in Cleveland called the Smiling Dog and they had all these jazz acts playing. They would book them during the week because in Cleveland you could grab an act going from New York to Chicago and get ‘em on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday during the middle of the week. They’d stop in Cleveland for a couple of nights during the week and then go on to the bigger gigs on the weekend. Braino became the house band of the Smiling Dog Saloon and all the jazz greats played there [like] Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis and one of the bands that played was a band called Weather Report. And because Braino was the house band, we had our quadrophonic sound system with echoes on it and stuff like that and we did a number for Weather Report that really sounded good one night and it was really beyond their normal experience. At that time they had no roadies, all the guys were setting up their own stuff and so the owner of the Smiling Dog kinda promoted us, “Hey, y’know we’ve got these two guys Alan and Brian, man. These guys really know what they’re doing, you need somebody like this out on the road with you!” And they thought it was a good idea so they invited us out. I had a job at the music store but Brian was a little more free, so Brian went out and became the first roadie for Weather Report while I continued on with my original bands. Braino continued to modulate into another band called Pi Corp, I thought that was a cool name as I was fascinated by music and mathematics, so we did Pi Corp and then eventually we started a studio that was called Pi Corporation and that modulated into a retail store and we became the synthesizer specialists for northeast Ohio. 

Howarth jamming with Pi Corp.

So how did you get on with Weather Report? 

Weather Report continued to grow and they got a bigger touring thing and Brian invited me to go out on the road with them in 1976 when the Heavy Weather album came out. I went out not as a musician but as the tech to keep all the synthesizers operating all around the world. Remember, all this stuff is studio equipment so it’s not meant for the road. So they needed somebody who really knew how to take it apart, keep it working, and tune it every night and deal with power and all this sort of stuff. I traveled the whole world with those guys! We went to Europe, all over North America and South America and China and Japan and Australia. It was a really cool time to be out there. 

What was it like traveling with Jaco Pastorius at the height of his improvisational prowess? 

It was interesting because, remember, the two founders of Weather Report, Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter, are a couple generations senior to us guys. Jaco was the kid and Peter Erskine was about the same age, so it was like the young guys were doing all the partying and a lot of the hangin’. Wayne and Joe were a little more [seasoned]…they’d done it before so when the gig’s over they’re gonna have a little glass of wine and go to bed. We christened Jaco “PK” which stood for “Party King.” Jaco was into the all night hang every night! Let’s face it, he was the Hendrix of the fretless bass guitar. He was the guy that picked that darn thing up and really did something that was beyond anything anyone had imagined before him. I was a bass player, [I thought] basses were basses – y’know, riffs and rock stuff. But here’s this guy playing this lyrical vibrato lead instrument on the bass guitar and still being really funky. When he was a young kid in Florida his early experience was playing with Wayne Cochran and the C.C. Riders, and [Cochran] was sort of the white James Brown. Jaco had super funk. He was very talented! I remember working on his bass when I first met him and what he had done was taken an old ’59 Fender jazz bass and literally pulled the frets off and filled the gaps with Bondo to make a smooth neck out of it. It wasn’t a fretless, it was a fretted that had been modified to be fretless. The interesting part is he still had the fret marks in Bondo so there was a map of where the frets used to be, but he could play on top of it. It was kinda really clever that it worked that way! And I remember that I modified the electronics because normally the way a guitar works, if you were to turn the volume of one pick-up off it would shut the whole guitar down, so you always had to keep one pick-up on a little bit and then the other one would be louder to adjust the bass and treble. I found a way to invert the way the ports were in there so he could turn one off completely and have the sound of another one, so it gave him a little more tonal range. Later we brought in an MXR digital delay, which had a phasing sound, which became a part of Jaco’s signature sound. He was using an acoustic 360 bass amp with twin heads and double bottoms and it had some fuzz in there and then we also had a little digital looper in the MXR so he could begin to jam a little and then have it play back so a lot of his bass solos were Jaco on top of Jaco! It was really cool stuff! 

Jaco Pastorius jamming with Weather Report.

Damn! 

The way Weather Report did it – since they were all great instrumentalists – was that each guy got a solo somewhere in the set, so there was always a Jaco bass solo and some of that stuff actually got recorded. I have cassettes off the boards of Jaco doing stuff that nobody’s ever heard and it was just amazing. I was on the road with him for probably 300 shows and no two shows were the same! I mean, there was a framework for a song – there was a riff and then they do what they want to do and then they go back to the riff or the bridge and then do an ending – but it was different every night. I think that really enhanced my ability to be improvisational when I got to do film scoring. It was never written down. It came out of your head and it came out of the instrument and that was it. You composed on the fly, so that makes it easy for me to sit in front of a movie now and just kinda tap stuff out while watching the movie. Touring with Jaco was a set-up for where I wound up later. 

What happened next? 

We went through this period on the road from 1976 through 1980 and then they were going into a long studio period, so there wasn’t a lot of work and the oddest career change occurred. The incident involved a big burly biker buddy of mine named Pax “Slim” Lemmon From Cleveland who was in Los Angeles working for Paramount Pictures in the transfer bay and he was just making copies of tapes from one quarter inch to the other for the sound FX editors and there were these two sound FX editors standing behind him – a fellow named Richard Anderson and a fellow named Steve Flick – having this conversation about how they were working on a movie and they really needed to find somebody who knew about synthesizers and Pax turns around and he goes, “Aw man, you gotta talk to my buddy Alan Howarth! He knows everything about synthesizers! He works for Weather Report!” And Steve and Richard look at him and go, “Weather report. Is that the one at 7 o’clock or 11 o’clock?” 

Haha. 

They thought he was talking about the local TV weather report! But they called that night and I went down there and they go, “Listen, we’re doing this movie called Star Trek: the Motion Picture and we’re looking for someone to create sounds for us. Would you be interested?”

You must’ve flipped, man! 

Yeah! They asked me to do an audition tape and they said, “Why don’t you make us the sound of the Starship Enterprise going from Warp 1 to Warp 7,” ‘cause there’s that one scene in the first movie where they had to get this big acceleration. So I went back in my little studio where I had my Prophet 5 synthesizer and my little TX 4-track and a little Sony mixer and I dialed up this sound on the Prophet 5 using the Poly-Mod section that I thought was a good sound for the Starship Enterprise. I turned in the tape and…guess what? That became the sound of the Starship Enterprise! I got the gig! All of a sudden I went from the band business to the movie business! 

TO BE CONTINUED…

1 comments:

bdocorleone said...

I am so fucking excited for this. Tom Atkins rules!