Best Interviews of 2011, Part 1: Chris Isaak, Charley Pride, & Ruthie Foster

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Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman shares observations, insights and updates relating to South Florida's musical environs. This week, cool conversations...

The start of a new year always seems to inspire a look back at the past 12 months, and while it may be self-indulgent to share certain triumphs, I'm not immune to the desire to indulge.

I had opportunity to interview a number of great artists in 2011 -- for New Times as well as for various other publications I write for -- and in the midst of those conversations, I managed to elicit several revealing quotes and comments. So here, for your reading pleasure, are some of the more intriguing excerpts I've culled from interviews I obtained over the past year.

* * *

For their recent album, Beyond the Sun, Chris Isaak and his band encamped at Sam Phillips' famed Sun Studios. "When we recorded it, we did it like they did it in the '50s," he recalled. "We cut it all at one time, everybody in the room, listening to each other. No overdubbing, because that's cheating. Everybody got excited, and that made a big difference. We had a ball. I told the guys this is the way it's going to be: If I'm singing good, you better be playing good, because if that's my best vocal take, guess which one we're gonna use?"

Obviously enthused, he unintentionally got carried away. "This was the definition of a labor of love," he says. "My manager asked how many songs we'd cut and I said, 'I think we're up to 38.' And she said, 'Do you know how much it's going to cost to mix that many?'"

* * *

"I felt like I was channeling Billie Holiday," Thomas Dolby remarked when discussing his long-delayed new album, A Map of the Floating City. "I had a dream one night that she came to me and encouraged me to write her a song. It seemed so real, and when I woke up, I felt like she had actually been there in the room with me. So I wrote these songs with her in mind."

Innovation and ingenuity are nothing new for a man who's always relied on his own devices. With MTV, he created his own persona to differentiate himself from the glitz and glamour that was then so pronounced. "I knew I couldn't compete with the pin-up boys like Duran Duran or Sting or Adam Ant. So I invented that mad scientist character. It really wasn't much of a stretch, because I was always pretty much of a geek anyway." With his stardom assured, he found himself suddenly in demand and playing with Foreigner, David Byrne, Roger Waters and Prefab Sprout. "I went from performing with Stevie Wonder at the Grammys to being in David Bowie's band at Live Aid, all within a matter of weeks," he marvels. "The opportunities were there, so I took full advantage."

Admittedly though, Dolby faces a challenge in easing back into the spotlight after being away so long. "There are a lot of kids who were born after my initial records and have no idea who I am," he concedes. "And a lot of my old fans have lost touch and aren't aware that I've returned. So I almost feel like I'm starting over now. But I do think the new record is every bit as good as my early work. I'm prouder of this album than I've been of anything I've done before."

* * *

Despite a penchant for blues, folk, gospel and R&B, singer/songwriter Ruthie Foster's never felt the need to stick within any defined parameters. "Yeah, that's no fun," she told me. "It's what keeps it interesting for me. I'm a music lover. I have so many different genres that I listen to, especially with my partner being 14 years younger than me. My band members all listen to different things as well, so that influences me. We're constantly trying to mix it up. So I dig up new things when I can hopefully without losing my core audience."

* * *

On his albums, Matthew Sweet comes across as a veritable one-man band. But when he's out on the road, he has an able support band in tow. So I asked him if it's difficult to make the transition from being a jack of all trades to sharing the stage with others. "No, not really," he replied. "When I'm out playing live, I'm thinking about me and getting my vocals right, so I'm just trying to get through it (laughs), and I guess I don't worry about it as much. It's a different situation. It's louder and more visceral live, so it's a different thing I go after in a live setting than maybe what you'd go after on a record."

Why then, I wondered, doesn't he employ other musicians in the studio? "And bring other people in?" he asked. "Well, I think it's easier for me. It was what I was always doing when I made demos for the records that I made. So now I don't really make demos, I make recordings, and then pick which ones I want to put on something. It's not consciously that I don't want other people. In fact, I do like other people. I can try to play guitar myself on a record really easily, but it's fun to get someone else who might discover something that I wouldn't do. And I always did miss having other people, so I do try to get them involved when I can, but I guess playing live helps me have that family feeling. It's kind of lonely being a solo guy.

* * *

"I am really an archetypical small business owner," alt-rocker John Vanderslice mused when asked about his Tiny Telephone recording studios in San Francisco. "I wake up in the morning, I go down to the studio, sweep, mop, vacuum, take out the compost and the recycling... Growing up in rural Florida, I find there's something that responds to being grounded and totally connected to a working, realistic life. I have business loans and I have a landlord I have to keep happy no matter what. So I have to be really paranoid and mindful of where I am. It's a very volatile business. But it really does keep you honest."

Honest maybe, but Vanderslice admits to harboring higher ambitions for his future efforts. "I think for the next record, want to make the weirdest record that I've ever made," he teased. "It's so hard to go all the all the way out, like when you're swimming off the shore and you just keep going until the lifeguard's waving his arms for you to come back. I want to explore how far out I can go."

Still, despite that intent to be odd and obtuse, he also readily admits that commercial success would be a desirable goal as well. "I want to own 5,000 acres in Northern California," he confesses. "I want to have twenty wives! (laughs) Or maybe I'm just envisioning my cult-like compound."

* * *

As its title suggests, Ancient & Modern, the new album by British punk provocateurs the Mekons, seems suspended in time. They've always been a band that's so much in the moment, and yet one that's been unafraid to comment on contemporary events. Still, the new album finds the group shifting back over a hundred years, a switch in strategy that's both philosophical and strategic.

"I think that's the point, that the moment now is the same as the moment then," vocalist Sally Timms explained. "What we're saying is that there's not that much difference between what's going on now and if you look back now to a hundred years ago, it's the idea that history is kind of repeating itself. If you go back a hundred years you can see a period where it was almost an identical situation where it was a very, very shallow period of history and that's what we feel this is as well. So we are commenting on the now and saying it happened before, so you can slip between the two things.

* * *

Bluegrass wunderkind Sarah Jarosz was enjoying a moment of rare respite when I caught up with her last summer. Although she was in the midst of an extensive tour, she found time to relax prior to her set at Colorado's RockyGrass Festival. "It's been pretty rigorous, but it's been good," she sighed, betraying the easy-going demeanor of a young lady who turned 20 just as the tour started last May.

Still, as evidenced on Follow Me Down, her recently released sophomore set, Jarosz's ample abilities on guitar, banjo, piano, mandolin and vocals belie her tender years. Yet though touted as a child prodigy, Jaroscz shrugs off that suggestion. "I guess I'm pretty used to it," she chuckles. "I don't know if I am or not, but it means a lot for people to say that. I think it had more to do with being surrounded by so many of my heroes and being able to learn from them at such an early age."

* * *

It was a special treat to talk with Mitch Ryder, a singer that I caught in concert more than three decades ago, at the first show I ever saw. "Did you ever think back then that you would still be doing the same thing 45 years later?" I asked him.

"No, I thought it was early retirement, age 35 and up," he answered. "In fact, I don't want to retire because I don't know what else to do. I saw my father go through this. He held the same job his whole life, and when he retired it just drove him mad. He didn't have anywhere to go and he didn't know anything else. And I don't know anything else. What am I going to do if I retire? God's been good to me. I still have really good pipes and I can still move around on stage, so I'm in for the long haul."

I also discovered something I never knew - that Wynona Ryder actually took her stage name from his surname. "She got it from her father's record collection," Ryder revealed. "Of all the people she could have chosen..."

* * *

Country singer Charley Pride is truly one of a kind. For starters, he's one of the few African American performers in an arena that's by and large the exclusive domain of white performers. He's also managed to maintain a prosperous career despite the industry's partiality for more trendy young performers. "I get asked that all the time, 'Why is there no more of y'all in that area?'" he mused. "I get all these questions and the thing is, I don't have all the answers, but I do think that in all the years I've been singing, I've done traditional music. When RCA got rid of me, they just went with what a lot of people call the Hat Gang. So my thing is that I was still selling 250,000 albums when RCA let me go. That's the way it went, but it's okay. I'm still not in the soup line, ya know.

* * *

Given their prolific 20year trajectory, They Might Be Giants never seem to run out of new ideas. So I asked John Flansburgh, one the band's two mainstays if it's ever a challenge dreaming up new concepts for their albums.

"We have discussed how we're running out of nouns," Flansburgh joked. "It's probably time to move our focus to adverbs. Seriously, I wouldn't want you to assume we haven't done a certain amount of repeating, but it's probably not a bad idea for a creative person--especially songwriters--to give yourself permission to at least repeat some aspects of how you work. Good songs are often bold and simple, and it would be a mistake to say "I've already done bold and simple. Gotta move on to fragile and fussy.

"When we started, we had a lot of big ideas about avoiding stock ideas," he continued. "No solos, just arranged breaks. Short intros. No fade-outs. We weren't too big on writing about love, but we were also probably pretty shy about the topic too. Just staying away from clichés was the main thing, and while we have given in to the pleasures of intros, solos and an occasional fade-out, it's still the goal. When we started, we weren't that far past the New Wave moment and short, sharply structured songs of any kind -- whether it was the Residents to Elvis Costello -- were infinitely more appealing to us than the baggy, jammy songs of progressive rock."

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