On that non-musical time in the seventies:
“No, I wouldn’t have a radio. The fun had all gone out of what music was to me and what it gave to me. The business part of the music business became bigger than the music part of the music business. And rather than being involved in the music process I was more involved in the business part of the music business. And it made me very nuts. And I didn’t want to have anything to do with anything having to do with music, or the people around it. Musicians are okay. But the rest of the folks I found to be caught up in the milieu of commerce. And it poisoned the waters. And it took a while for them to clear.”
Why did he come back and how it cleared:
“I think it was Anthony (d’Atri). As he developed more and more as an artist, he kind of sucked me back into the process, to where I played drums again and all kinds of neat stuff and started listening to music. And when he got to the point with his song writing that it was evident that he needed a studio or something to record on. I think he said he wanted one of those little portable DAT things, and I said, “Pshaww!” And I think that was the moment. I said, “No you don’t. You’ve got to have a real…you can’t just have a…you won’t be happy with it. Golly you better go ahead and build this little four track thing over here and you’ll be able to reproduce what you do well and it will be an easy functioning little writing studio for a writer to write in, play music in and develop in. So we went ahead and built that little thing, and that was all very interesting and all. But it wasn’t a studio at that point and I said, “Gee, it might be fun to build a studio again. And four tracks isn’t enough.” And so we built the studio and then, where there’re studio, there are players. So, back to music again.”
How finance it?
“We just did it. We sold the cows. We started to build a better room for Anthony to build in. Just started building. Just built away until it was all done. And when it was all finished we saw that it cost us a little more than we thought, by about $100,000 bucks or something. Goll darn budgets. Darn pesky budgets. [Someone] loaned us some money to buy a 24 track. Because by that time we had bought a board. Because we’d heard about this great old board. And so we went ahead and did that, and realized that we had built what turned out to be a world class studio. The accoustics of the room are phenomenal. And the people who have come from around the world have come from Germany, and all over the place. And Phil Sheridan, the engineer, is a major attraction. Got Grammys, and Emmys, and all of that stuff. Phil is a Canadian recording icon. He was the kind of guy we wanted because it was the kind of music we wanted to record in the room. Now there’s another guy coming over to talk about going to work. He’s the chief engineer of radio Bulgaria. (Boris something.).”
What makes it world class?
“The 150 year old wood. The love that Anthony put into building the floating floor. We used a lot of esoteric building techniques in this studio to make it comfy. For players when you are in it and play in the room so that it gave back to you as opposed to taking the music out of you. I don’t know if you’ve walked into some studios and you get this feeling of going into some sort of a different space and PPPPHHHHHTTTTT (inhalation) the sound is sucked up. So what this room does, is it’s a player’s room. Because we were playing in it. What you want is a room that’s going to play back to you, that’s going to give you some life and encourage you to play more. So the floor is all 150-200 year old planks that are floating on sections of massive wooden beams. They must be some of them 15 by 18. All hand-hewn lumber. Mostly elm. And those sections are boxes that are sand filled and suspended. So they’re these boxes and they’re enclosed by these other hand-hewn beams. So its really boxes after box, interlocked but independent. So if you’re sitting next to me tapping your foot, it’s not going to come over to my box. So there! And the ceiling is 30 something feet up there. That helps. And what you see isn’t actually the ceiling. There’s a six foot bass trap up there. So the whole ceiling is a bass trap. So the desired frequencies stay in the room, and those frequencies that are pesky. Pesky little frequencies! Go up in there and are absorbed in the acoustic side of the room. And also flexing wall.”
What was in the barn before this?
How much of a farm is now left?
“Very much farm. Lot’s of farm. Oh yeah, farming right along. We raise the pigs not only for being pigs, but also for being racing pigs. And we have a pig racing track here now, all chopped down. For weekly pig races.”
“We’re dealing in seven figures here. For everything.”
(Interview interrupted by a guy who wants to buy a load of
Does he still do the giant pumpkins?
“They’re too big now. Cannot compete.”
On the CDs:
“Puck’s Farm Records, the children’s label, family entertainment. National Treasures which is the one the piano one is on which is those people who are national treasures in their country, whatever their nation happens to be. They are probably in the niche market. These people are just really genius at what they do, and are probably underexposed. Those are the people we are looking for. We don’t care that much what the overall sales are going to be, but these are national treasures has been designed to record and preserve the art of these people whose work warrants being passed down to the next generation. So that’s what the design of that label is. There’s another label that we’re working on. ROCK AND ROLL. The rock and roll circus, the mainstream cutting edge new exciting stuff. Stuff that turns you on.”
Stuff that you believe in?
“Oh for sure. But it might be stuff that somebody else believes in too. It could be a record that you hear there and you say, you know, the thing is not being distributed in Canada, or its not being distributed in North America, are you interested in it? And I say sure man, if its selling in France, let’s try selling it here in Le Quebec. And we pick up the master and sell. Singers and songwriters.”
Of the piano record:
“It’s so non-confrontational. It doesn’t challenge you. I really like the way it works.”
What’s your role as executive producer?
“It’s probably just what I like. My mentor, I had two guys in the music business, or three. A guy named Chuck Kaye at A&M, who didn’t know that he taught me a lot, or did. Paul Rothchild who was very important in my life as far as, I guess, getting me involved in a different kind of music making in structured thought. And then Jac Holzman who taught me about things like ethics and thinking of singularity of vision and focusing and committment to purpose. All things that he did at Electra and that they did with Nonesuch, and how commerce can fund art and a balance there. And I think that probably of all the people in my musical or business kind of career part that Jac would have been the most influential and still is to this day. And I don’t think that he even knows when I am calling upon him for guidance because I do it from what he’s doing and by example. I only have to look at what he’s doing to know what to do. And he’s a very good teacher that way, he doesn’t even know he’s doing it. What was the question?”
Role as executive producer:
“It is a matter of taste. My taste is going to be reflected. And that is why I was talking about singularity of vision. I think for any artistic endeavour to succeed…I just don’t believe in art-by-committee.”
Different distributors in different areas. Anthony’s by one company in the States. There are European licensees.
“I don’t believe in making those big records. I don’t really think it’s necessary to invest big bucks in recording music. That’s really what you’re doing: you’re recording music. So if the music is there, it’s a technical process in a comfortable environment. There’s no big deal to it. Going back to the way that Rothchild made records, this was a big deal, this was structured, created, manufactured music, and it was a different thing. That’s not what I’m involved in. I prefer to record small projects that aren’t expensive to do and that garner reasonable sales over a long period of time. If you look back over the records that I’ve made, these records have been re-released. They came out on originally vinyl, and now they’re re-released again on CD. Those weird little records that didn’t cost anything to make that have made millions and millions of dollars back. I’d just prefer to do it that way. A little project. It’s also more interesting. If you make a record that sucks for one reason or another, you haven’t blown anything except a little bit of your time and energy, and a few bucks and some studio time. Which is why we have a studio. We don’t count that. We don’t have a clock in there. You know, we have clients who come and they say, “For a place that sells your time by the hour, it’s very clever not to put up a clock so people lose track of time.” We say, “No, that’s not really the reason we did it. We did it so you wouldn’t have the feeling that you were playing against time.” Sometimes people say we only booked six hours and we played for ten, and we say, well, pretend it was six and go home. We’re more interested in getting the music recorded than the capital rewards from it.”
They rent it out to occasional people:
“Ian Tyson was in here doing some stuff.”
Doug Norquay tape sent to me:
“He’s still writing, and still recording. It’s an on-going process. And to me that’s what the recording thing is. You record a body of work or a period of time or whatever. And that’s what makes it interesting as opposed to going into the studio because you have to make a widget to go out because the accountants say we don’t have a Christmas record, or we don’t have a this, because there’s a hole in our bucket, fill it. So if we’re not involved in that and it’s more of a developmental process it makes the whole recording exercise the artistic endeavour as opposed to what you’re trying to achieve at the outcome. I guess it’s more process than goal oriented that is our philosophy. So with Doug its going to take a while.”
How do you look back on the circus stuff now?
“I don’t know if I wouldn’t do it again. I still have these kind of circus visions in my head from time to time of a couple of different circuses. One is a throwback to the turn of the century kind of show with those old costumes and that whole thing, return to what circus was. And the other half of the show is of circus will become. Which would involve all kinds of effects and video and laser projections and holograms and all kinds of other stuff interacting with the live performers.”
About his career:
“It spirals. As Essra once said. It spirals. Because I keep moving back it seems to me over things that I’ve done in the past and picking up little bits and pieces of it and taking it on to the next endeavours. I started out working when I was 15 working on Chucko the clown. And even before that producing variety shows when I was ten at the local theater. I guess the first when I was ten I produced in the garage. And ended up at the local movie theater owned by the Lemly family of movie fame, the Loss Lulet theater, and started doing these little variety shows there. And then from that went over to ABC and worked on the Chucko the Clown show for a while. For four or five years after school in the summer and then it became my full-time job. And worked on another show
called Stars of Jazz. Well both those things are coming back now. We’re doing a show very similar to stars of jazz here in our studio, a TV show. That’s shooting I guess next February, March. And we’re producing that in the studio which is also set up for TV. And we’re doing another kiddie show, a Puck’s Farm kid’s show from here. So I mean, here it’s moving back around again.”
And circus came around from Chucko to Puck’s. The photography period? Of the Cirque d’Hiver in Paris?
“Of the Moscow Circus at the Cirque d’Hiver. I was shooting freelance for an agency called Pics in New York. Originally I was shooting Marshal Tito because he left New York. I shot him on the boat. ‘Hey boy, you want to take pictures of me? You want to take pictures? I stand stiff! I stand very stiff! Surrounded by secret service for you. I do this many times for you. I give you one picture 150 times over two weeks. OKAY?!?'”
That’s what he said?
“No, but that’s what it was. He invited me into his little boat room there. I drank some wodka. It was very good, I was sixteen. And tippled away. They had me down way under the water there somewhere. With people who were going back to the homeland, smoking these little crooked cigars.”
There’s always been under the limelight, showbizz…
“I’ve always been the backroom operator, though. Not really the front guy. Except with the circus where I was the ringmaster. But beyond that I’m usually fairly invisible because being out front would require costumes and props and a set. And I’m not up to that.”
I say it’s like being a producer all the time.
“Vicky called me a backroom operator in her book.” (Vicky the Canadian radio personality who started in his show and is now a big Canadian personality on the CBC. Vicky Gabereau. Rent a Fool was started with her; and Lynne Cavanagh and Mark Parr.)
What he’s strong on going back far. Promotion, publicity.
“My father was–he’s still around, the old fart–he’s 87. He picked up on a younger woman who used to be a hoofer in Vegas. They had an act like beauty and the beast. Her first husband–Scotty–where he wore the monkey suit. Was the original King Kong in the film. And she gave us the suit. So it’s in the studio. Standing up on the balcony overlooking the studio. The original king kong suit, 1932 or something. Scary as shit, man, made out of gorilla. She’s 86. He calls her the younger woman. He was the head of the vocational rehabilitation service for the state of California. And my mother was a painter. But my godparents, Shirley and Norman Carroll O’Connor were the publicist and ringmaster for Clyde Beatty Circus and later Ringling. That’s where it came from. I suspect we were switched at birth.”
And him still as publicist?
“A nose for news. Media cows, one of my favourite. What the farm is about, is what that’s about. The farm gives me an outlet to do those kinds of things.”
Do you live off the farm?
“Yes. The freezer is full.”
(They live off everything on the farm. They just got a new commercial Faema coffee machine. Hooked up to the water line.)
12 December 1941
His time at the Happy Valley Boarding school?
“It certainly answers for what I call my artistic integrity. Whatever that may be, came from that experience. That and my mother, a painter. I would say my artistic sensibility came from Happy Valley. Which is eclectic, to be complimentary to myself, I’ll call it eclectic. It’s kind of like that line, you know, ‘If you’ve got money you’re eccentric, if you don’t, you’re crazy.’ I’ll say it’s esoteric. I’m afraid that what I like in art isn’t always what other people appreciate. Or in a musician either. There are things that I hear that are probably, with a lot of people, only heard by a few people, and not always liked by them either. And sometimes what I like in a particular writer or something is the fact that they ARE nuts. And that the lyrics are quite bonkers, and that it’s bad. But it’s honest, and it really reflects in this person’s twisted, you know it reflects their reality. I like what it is that they’re doing, and don’t really consider or not whether it has commercial value. And that’s the stuff I want to record. I don’t necessarily have to put it out, I just want to preserve it.”
(He went to the valley school for the bulk of his high school years, 2 to 3 years. 15 years old.)
“Huxley spoke, Krishnamurti spoke. We would go and sit in the poison oak and listen to him.”
“After happy valley I bought this Mother Goose menagerie thing and went out on the road. No. I was still short a couple of credits and went and picked them up in LA at one of those finishing schools. And I also did the strangest year book picture….when I was trying to be Karsh. You’re not supposed to show pores.”
So he got the high school diploma.
“Then I went out on the road with this mother goose menagerie show that I had bought. Travelled around to fairs and stuff. Which was a petting farm, which is what we’re doing here. Then one day my mother called and said, “We’re going to Europe. You can come with us if you want, or stay with the pigs.” So I sold the show to my
partner within about an hour and a half and went off to Europe, and ended up in Nice and enrolled in the University of Marseille, that is, the campus in Nice. And I think I went to a few classes. And I think I was there about a year. Somewhere in there was the Santa Monica city college where I took this photography course. Because I was taking these pictures of family portraiture. These pictures looked like Charles Adamms’ family. I didn’t have a lot of work. People would look at them and say, “I don’t think we want any reprints of that…you know, the big dark kind of shadows under my three year old’s eyes make it look like she’s been hit. Well, wasn’t it…didn’t you? Well yeah but you’re not supposed to show the bruises. Oh okay.” I wasn’t real good at that. I think my formal education kind of trickled out there in Nice. I studied English. I figured I couldn’t fuck up. But it was very hard. I figured it would be easy and I could stay on the beach. That it would be a push over. But it never occurred to me that they were going to conduct the classes in French. I was maybe 19 or 20.”
“That’s really one of the reasons why I finally fled the music business, completely and absolutely, was I just…it was poison. Jackson Browne has a song called Poison in the Feet. (Is that what he said?) And that’s what it was, and I just had to get away from it. Grow some feet. Had to get some feet. Things you can stand and walk on.”
So you went back to your roots in a way. Circus stuff?
“Yeah. Started again. People say, well, you only live once. You only get to do something once and blah blah blah…. Well most people only do the same thing over and over and over again. And I’ve been really lucky in being able to have a take-two. So I got to go back and do all those things that I fucked up the first time a little better the next time. You know, I get to do them all over again, make them a little bit better this time and say, well isn’t that neat. I didn’t make the same mistake this time…but my interests haven’t changed, I guess, it’s just as you get older you’ve made more mistakes, so you don’t hopefully make them again. There are less to make, maybe.”
You never planned any of this, did you?
“Uh uh. Oh no.”
Played it by ear?
“I really don’t know what I’ll be doing tomorrow. I got an offer from a label to go and produce some stuff in L.A. And went to talk to the people. And had an opportunity to leave L.A. six hours early. And I did.”
About how the making of the CD is what interests him.
“There were people who were thrilled to hold the CD in their hands, you know, our first product and all of that. And somehow that wasn’t where my joy…you know I had already listened to it and loved it and found it fun to listen to in my car as I drive about and that’s it. I am now pleasured.”
But you have found a compromise, since there has to be a business side to this for this to work.
“Yes, you have to think about it. I don’t think that as far as you decided what it is that you’re going to record has anything to do with the business. But what you’re going to sell does. What you’re actually going to put out into the market and where it’s going to go. You have to figure–the records I’m making–there are 5000 people out there who think the same way I do in the world. There has to be! And I can get the record to them, I can then go ahead and make another record with somebody else for another 5000 people. Or the same, I don’t care.”
Trying to get the big market:
“You can’t chase the puck. Anthony put it very succinctly. You can’t chase the puck. You can’t go after what’s popular. You can’t win that way.”
But if it does happen to be popular, what you like, great!
“Or if you do enough stuff that only a few people like, it does the same thing.”
“The whole time I was building the studio, that’s what I heard in my head was Kate and Anna McGarrigle. It’s for their voices. They’ve never been here and it’s one of my real dreams, is that they will come and sing here.”
“We have a juggler. Trained pigs. Trained horse. It’s coming around. The loop is coming around again. That’s what’s just so fascinating to me about this thing, is watching this thing coming around. There’s no one at the rudder.”