An interview with
I recently wrote in my review of the album Variety Orchestra, it had been
since 1992 - the year when I first listened to an album featuring vivacious
and intelligent songs titled Brian
Woodbury And His Popular Music Group - that I had lost all traces of Brian
Woodbury, an artist whose music, so simple on first listening, revealed in
time quite a complex compositional logic.
Having in my
hands the newly-released CD Variety Orchestra was for me a double surprise:
first, because I had found Woodbury again; then, because this new - and excellent
- album featuring for the most part instrumental tracks was a big departure
from the Woodbury I knew. A Web search confirmed to me that this was an artist
with a varied background.
I thought of
doing an interview. Woodbury kindly agreed, so we had an e-mail conversation
between the end of May and the start of June. And here it is.
I've read that you started performing at the age of 11. Please,
tell me about the way you started developing an interest for music.
In much the usual way, at 3 or 4 I started messing around with my
parents' piano. I had the notion that if I put coins in between the
cracks, it would play like a juke box or a player piano (which I had
seen in an amusement park). My first experiments were attempts to evoke
soldiers and angels (the low end versus the high end).
I was always fascinated with recordings of Mozart's Don Giovanni
and The Beggar's Opera, as much for the swashbuckling swordplay as for
anything else. When I was five I organized plays at school that involved
swashbuckling heroes rescuing damsels in distress. I was always the
The usual experience - the Beatles during grammar school; started
writing songs on guitar at about 10 and performing a little later; listening
to singer-songwriters in my early teens; progressive rock in high school;
Zappa, Beefheart; modern classical; musical theater in college.
I know that you studied with Tom Lehrer. I've heard of him, but
I've never heard his music. (I read an interview with him by Paul Zollo
from 1990, one that Zollo later included in his Songwriters On Songwriting
book collection.) Would you mind talking about Lehrer - and about how
this experience was important for you?
Tom Lehrer was a revelation to me in high school. His songs had all
the craft of the Broadway greats combined with an acerbic and almost
subversive quality and none of the sentimentality (an attitude which
as a teenager I really related to). Also he was a brilliant, but understated,
I discovered to my delight that he taught at the college I went to
(University of California Santa Cruz). His class was called Introduction
to Musical Theater. One had to audition to get into it. So I got up
the courage to sing a song of my own for the audition. It was a Johnny
Cash satire that I had written in high school (Them Prison Gates are
The class consisted of one week of studies, alternating with a week
in which we would put together an abbreviated reading of a classic Broadway
musical from each of the major eras (20s through the 60s). It was a
During the class we got to know him well, and I started bringing
him some of the songs I was writing, to get his advice about songwriting,
particularly lyrics. Major influence on me, both before meeting him
You've collaborated with Van Dyke Parks - who has expressed admiration
for your work. Would you mind talking about this collaboration?
In 1983, my wife Elma Mayer and I were in a band called Some Philharmonic,
something that had come together at music school inspired by punk rock,
Parliament Funkadelic, Beefheart and Henry Cow. We found Van Dyke Parks's
Song Cycle in a used record store. I already knew it and loved it, but
the band hadn't. We went through an enormous phase of absorbing that
album over many months.
Elma discovered that Van Dyke lived in Los Angeles. She looked his
address up in the phone book and just decided to send him our LP. He
got it and listened to it and called us up on the phone. When he first
called my reaction was "bullshit." I thought someone was pulling
our leg. You might as well have said, "It's Abraham Lincoln on
Later we moved to Los Angeles, Van Dyke tried to help us get a record
deal, which never happened. But we are still in touch and I am a great
admirer of his work. He has not received the recognition he deserves.
Has the recorded work of Brian Wilson been inspirational for you?
By the way, Wilson recently brought his Pet Sounds and Smile projects
to the stage for the first time. Did you have the chance to attend those
But of course, this is a big influence. I think I spent about half
of 1985 and 1986 listening to Pet Sounds (the other half listening to
Cupid and Psyche 1985 by Scritti Politti). I have not seen any of the
concerts. I plan to if I get the opportunity.
When I first listened to your 1992 album of songs, Brian Woodbury
And His Popular Music Group, I seemed to notice a lot of musical references
being made (and: is it just my imagination, or do you really make a
verbal joke about a song by Elton John in Dreamstate Of California?).
It seems to me that this compositional strategy (i.e., referring, quoting,
in music) is nowadays quite less common than in the past. Your opinion?
This is a very good question, and I think you are right. Yes, there
is a reference to Your Song.
I made a conscious decision to avoid using references starting about
1995. I don't say never, but I think it can be a crutch. It is also
possibly distancing emotionally. Not for every listener, but for a lot
of people, humor takes the empathy. For me, I find humor in the face
of tragedy enriching, but maybe I'm just perverse. Anyhow, I've limited
the number of references for a while, particularly if the song is really
trying to convey something sad or serious. If you are writing for a
character who is not yourself, for instance in theater or children's
television, the character shouldn't make a literary reference that he
or she wouldn't get.
That notwithstanding, I read recently a new book has come out about
Shakespeare, cataloging all the references he made to the pop songs of the day. Many lines
in the plays refer to things that are hopelessly obscure, but were clever
allusions in their day. So I figure if Shakespeare could do it, what
the heck, lighten up.
I know you have a CD out called The Brian Woodbury Songbook, which
I've never listened to. Is it aesthetically different from the Brian
Woodbury And His Popular Music Group album?
A little more serious, less irreverent. Part of the reason I had
other people sing these songs, is I didn't want people to think they
were funny. A lot of time when I sing a song, people think it's funny,
even if it's about somebody dying. I guess I have someone of a comic
I'll send you one. You tell me.
In the booklet cover of your recent album Variety Orchestra you
mention the names of Carla Bley, Oregon, Henry Threadgill and Fred Frith
as musicians being inspirational for you. Would you mind talking about
Until I wrote this music, I had been a songwriter, and never written
instrumentals. I'm not much of an instrumentalist myself, although I
do play guitar and bass, but I admire great instrumentalists, and there
was a huge amount of talent where I was living in the downtown New York
scene in the late 1980s, experimental jazz, etc. Since I'm not a great
player, I don't improvise much, and I tend to think more compositionally.
So as far as inspiration, I speak mostly of Fred Frith as a composer,
though he is a phenomenal improviser. His Gravity and Speechless albums
really opened up worlds for me.
Oregon (I forgot I mentioned them) again were amazing group improvisers
and I really dug that about them. And my bandmates and I used to do
some extended improvisation (never live), inspired by their approach.
But I guess for the record, they were an inspiration in terms of creating
a unique ensemble with a new palette.
Henry Threadgill I just think is great, and iconoclastic.
I think the CD actually is closest in spirit and sound to Carla Bley,
whom I first saw in 1980 in a little bar in San Francisco. I sent her
a demo tape and she wrote nice things back.
You've also written for theater, dance and television, and I know
you're a principal songwriter for Jim Henson’s Bear In The Big
Blue House. Please, talk about the different requirements this dimension
needs when compared to the other - is the word "stand-alone"
ok? - kind of songwriting.
Well, for the TV shows I wrote for, many of the songs were character
songs, in that they took place in a scene and were sung by a particular
character. So they were essentially theater songs. Theater songs you
try to get the voice of a character and the mood of the scene into song.
Is the person getting excited, calming himself down, motivating himself
to take a decisive action. It's all rather corny and formulaic if you
look at it in one way, but it's universal and profound. I'm a big sucker
Most of the other TV songs were more general and full of gentle admonitions
or revelations, sung in an avuncular way. Since I often write that kind
of song, it was right up my alley.
I've seen that an old LP of yours from 1987, All White People
Look Alike, has recently been re-released on CD. I've seen the title
track being described as "a musical manifesto on race, conformity
and (pre-internet) mass culture". Would you mind elaborating?
I'll send it to you. You just have to hear it. It's 20-minutes long,
with many sections but no breaks in between, each goes seamlessly into
the next. It ends with a long crescendo under a spoken word rant that
talks about race and culture and many other things.
In a few Internet Forums I've read some threads about musicians
of the late 60s/early 70s reacting to the Vietnam War and the sociopolitical
turmoil of that era, while nowadays there's not much activity going
on. I know it's a very complex matter, but what's your take on this?
I think probably there is just as much political music as there was
in that era. I think most of it is kind of marginalized by being un-inspired
and by being associated with un-inspired music. There's a lot of well-meaning
but poorly crafted and just not very catchy political stuff. People
find other ways of expressing those things. Also, it alienates lots
of listeners. Particularly in the US.
But that said, there is an amazing amount of social commentary in
hip hop and country music. I mean, country music has become quite adept
at really political propaganda. 90% of it is right-wing. But I see room
for left-wing propaganda in country too. It's something I am working
on. I just wrote a country song called My Country. It is about the things
I admire about my political heritage. In answer to the narrow bigotry
that is starting to propagate from country radio.
Hip hop is full of commentary, very specific cultural stuff, usually
African-American specifically. And a lot of it is bullshit, as far as
I am concerned - a very crass view of human nature, and therefore, a
narrow view. But it is very vibrant.
Why hasn't someone come out with a song, US out of Iraq? I don't
I guess there is something embarrassing about being so "on the
nose". Pop songwriters struggle to make something that is of the
moment but also in some way universal. There has to be a twist of some
Beppe Colli 2004
| June 11, 2004