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Non-Prog Interviews

Albert Bouchard

Interviewed by Jason Hillenburg

Interview with Albert Bouchard from 2014

MSJ: We can start with you telling us about the genesis for this project?
A couple of things got me thinking about it. My brother Joe [Bouchard] had put out a couple of solo records and he plays most of the instruments, sings all of the vocals, and sometimes he has people come in and help him. I saw that it gave him an extra outlet. Having completed it, I've got to say it was a little harder than I thought it would be because you get used to being in a band and having people say, "You know, I don't really care for that" or "If you did blah, blah, blah,” so there's more give and take, you have collaboration. I think I'm pretty good at it and I've been doing it a long time, but to not have that is kind of weird for me. So that took some getting used to and I don't think I could have done it if my brother Joe hadn’t helped with some of the song choices and just a general direction for it. I was consulting with him a lot and the mastering engineer, Andy VanDette. I've been working with him for over twenty years and he helped me with a lot with the mixing because I hadn't been mixing in a long time. He really gave me very good advice as far as, you know, "Oh, you should add 300k to the guitar and take it out of the vocal,” these kinds of things, technical stuff the readers probably don't care about, but it made it sound really good. I couldn't have done it without those two guys, plus Robert Gordon and Andy Shernoff all gave me good advice as far as what direction to go. But back to the genesis...I did try to do a solo record back in 1982 when I left Blue Oyster Cult. I got a solo deal with Columbia Records and [chuckles] that was kind of discouraging. That was a different kind of solo record. That was me with all my friends, all of my famous friends. Robby Krieger played on it, Aldo Nova… Alex Lifeson was supposed to play on it but didn't. He didn't have time to. So there were a bunch of people who were going to play on my solo record and then what happened was it got stalled. The big wigs at Columbia came and heard it and said, "Gee, we don't hear a single,” and I'm like, "Oh! I was supposed to make a single?" [laughs] No one told me that, you just said make a record! I probably could have made a single if they had said, “Listen, the business has changed, you need to make a single.” I was just trying to make a cool record that I could pull off live, you know? Go out and do some gigs to establish myself as a solo artist. So the record kind of stalled. They were trying to figure out what to do with it. They didn't have a single. Then they were like, "Let's make Astronomy the single!" Okay, so it was going like that and then it just sat there for at least a year where nothing was happening and they didn't know what to do with it. Finally, they decided if we put it out as a Blue Oyster Cult record, we can sell it like that. Everyone in Blue Oyster Cult was actually already on the record, except for Eric Bloom, so they had Eric come in and sing some songs, they had Donald [Roeser] come in and sing some songs, then they put it out as Imaginos. I was kind of upset about it because, number one, when they said they would do that, the management, not the band but the management, said, “yeah, you're back in the band, you'll be playing with them again and whatnot.” When the record was about to come out, they were doing a tour of Greece. I called up Donald and said, “When are we leaving? When's the flight? I think we should rehearse,” and he's like, “What are you talking about? You're not coming back.” I'm like, “I need to get my passport.” And he's like, “No, you don't.” [chuckles]
MSJ: Sounds like a bit of a communication breakdown there.
Yeah! That was quite a mindblower actually. I said, well, management said I was coming back and he said, “Well, I never said that, as far as the band's concerned, it's a done deal, we've got another drummer, so that's that.” I was like, “wow, okay.” After that, I would think about doing a solo record and, especially in 1994, I put out The Brain Surgeons record myself. I created a little label called “Cellsum Records,” and we put out a bunch of Brain Surgeon records. Before the first one even came out, I was thinking I should just make one myself, just play all the parts and whatnot. And, on the first Brain Surgeons record, I pretty much did play all the parts except for a bass player I had come in, a guy named “Mike Leslie” who I'd played with in a bunch of oldies acts and the Helen Wheels Group, and a couple of horn players…a guy named “David Hirschberg” who ended up playing bass in The Brain Surgeons and a guy named “Flip Barnes” who was a trumpet player. He was really good and in another band I produced called “Women in Love.” Anyway, basically, it was a solo record, but it wasn't called that, and it really started The Brain Surgeons off as an entity and I got to tour with them. After The Brain Surgeons broke up in 2006, I started thinking about doing a solo record, but my biggest problem is that I'd lose steam and get distracted. I had gone back and taken piano lessons because I had stopped when I was eleven years old and I started getting into Duke Ellington. I really wanted to play piano like him or, at least, play some of his songs on piano. I learned about six Duke Ellington songs on the piano and about more sophisticated harmonies and stuff like that. So I started to make a solo record that was all instrumental jazz - that was my idea. I got about four or five songs into it and ran out of ideas. [laughs]

So then I started doing a radio show every month on my oldest son's internet radio station, wfku.org, and I was hearing all this goth rock, like industrial music, and started making an album like that. I found it easy to do. I got about eight songs into it and I'd play it for people who were fans of that kind of stuff and they'd go, "Yeahhhh.” [laughs]

Then Joe made his first solo record and he used me a lot to bounce ideas about song choices and arrangement ideas, so I helped him with that record. So before we even start recording the second Blue Couple album Million Miles More, Joe says we need forty demos for the new record and we'll pick from them. So we did forty, picked the top twelve, and made Million Miles More. At the same time, Joe took the demos of the song we didn't use (his better ones) spiffed them up, and put them out as his second record Tales From An Island. I thought a lot of those songs could be good acoustically and he was like, “Yeah, but I like to put on my orchestration, he likes a big, dense rock sound.” I thought it would be cool to do an acoustic record. I'd been thinking about doing an acoustic record myself, so that's where I got the idea to do an acoustic record with every song revolving around the guitar, banjo, or mandolin.

MSJ: The mandolin's an underrated instrument. You don't hear it a lot in popular music nowadays and it used to be more prevalent.
Yeah, so once I got that idea, I didn't make forty demos, but I made thirty-seven and picked the top twelve out of that. Joe said, “You know, you put the BOC covers on there, it's not that impressive to me, I like the new material.” I said, “The thing is it's radical enough that I'm making this record, it's all acoustic based.” Though, at Andy Shernoff's [guitarist and songwriter for The Dictators], urging, I did put electric guitar on a lot of tracks. He said he thought it really needed it. Another thing that inspired me was Andy Shernoff trying out new songs two years ago at this little bar in the west Village owned by Eric Ambel [former guitarist for Joan Jett and the Blackhearts]. He had a residency for three or four months and every time I went to one of them, I thought, “Wow, this is cool.” He'd say, “Come on up and play a song, Albert,” and I'd go up and play. It was a lot of fun and towards the end I'd bring in new songs I was working on for Blue Coupe's record. That's the other thing that made me think, “I can do this, especially if I don't make it too elaborate, just take my acoustic guitar out and play a gig.” So that's kind of the thought process behind the whole thing, but it did get more elaborate because I asked myself what the minimum I needed to do was to make it sound like a real record. A lot of songs off the album start very simply with one acoustic guitars or a couple of mandolins playing in unison.
MSJ: I don't think anyone can ever accuse you of making the same album twice or being afraid to take risks with what you do. How do you sustain that creative impulse?
It does wax and wane. Before I started this record, I'd say I was writing two to four songs a year, and once I decided I was going to do the solo record, I started writing like crazy. I wrote 29 songs in two months.
MSJ: Wow, quite a creative burst.
It didn't even stop, I just thought “I have to stop and start concentrating on making the record or else I'm going to have 100 demos and no album.” [laughs] I also discovered that one of my friends I'd known for forty years, a famous photographer, (her name is “Cathy Vargas”) she really helped me a lot. She said she had some ideas for lyrics and sent me a couple of things and the first thing she sent me, I was like,”Wow, this is dynamite!” I thought this should be a Blue Coupe song, and I asked Dennis and Joe, I said I've got this great song called "Ghosts" and thought it'd be great for Blue Couple. But Joe and Dennis said, “You know, we've got a million songs, if you think it's great, put it on your record.” So it ended up on my record and that began a series of 18 songs I wrote with Cathy. She's still sending me lyrics because she'd never written a song before and she's written all these songs and now she's hooked! [laughs]
MSJ: That's one of my favorite songs off the album. It was quite impressive and your vocal was quite good.
Thanks. A lot of what I came up with grew out of stuff I was teaching my students. The music for that, I didn't actually steal any particular melody line or anything, just the sensibility, comes from a song called "Bella's Lullaby" in the movie Twilight.
MSJ: I haven't heard that or seen the movie.
It's just a piano solo. The guy plays it in the attic for the girl. I thought I could do that same sort of thing and combined that with her words. When you're working on something, you have no idea. You're just working on it. I had been working on a bunch of other songs and I was working on another song of hers too, and then it's done, it's a day later, I come home from work and turn on the stereo and I'm like, “Whoa, this is pretty cool!” The more and more I'd listen to it, I'd get really excited, but think, “Oh come on now, it's just new.” So I sent Cathy an email message, that's how we communicate these days, and I said I'm trying to contain my excitement, but I think this is really good and I sent it to her. She was like, “Oh my god, this is awesome.” So, I said, well, at least two of us like it! [laughs]
MSJ: I was wondering how much self-discovery comes through the songwriting process for you? Not just in recent years, but throughout your career. How much self-discovery have you been able to gain from the process?
That's a good one. I think there is quite a bit because there's times when you write songs and... that's why it's hard to teach it, because a lot of it is just unconscious. You're just riffing around and you toss a thing here and there, but afterwards you're like, “Oh, oh, that's what that means!” So I do think there's a great deal of self-discovery in the process of songwriting, but there's also self-discovery in the process of listening to songs. I believe that's one of the things that makes it really great. I just listen to stuff all the time and it inspires me, makes me think about my life, and the things that define you. I don't think you consciously think about this stuff when you're very young, but as you get older you start thinking, “What am I, what am I doing here?” It's not just songwriting. Everything will do that. I'm still discovering stuff about myself, for sure.
MSJ: I don't think we ever stop if we're interested in growing as people. What drives you as an artist to continue taking risks? Someone unfamiliar with your history would listen to this album and think, “Wow, this isn't the Blue Oyster Cult I grew up listening to!”
You know, I don't know. I think that it could be just part of my nature. As a kid, I got in trouble doing things I wasn't supposed to do, getting spankings and all of this other stuff, getting in trouble at school, but I believe I've been able to turn this kind of behavior into a positive thing. This is one of the positives as you get older - you find ways to channel your iconoclastic nature. For instance, when I was in Blue Oyster Cult or any band I've been in, sometimes the other musicians complained that I changed things around too much without going through them. Some fill that I've always played the same - I would change it. I think people get used to that kind of stuff. If it's something that requires them to come in after the fill, then I'm not going to change the length of the fill. I try to have consideration for the rest of the guys, but I might play a different rhythm or a different combination of drums and stuff. I think it's just in my nature to take risks. As far as being creative, I think that's part of the whole thing. I take risks because I'm creative and I'm creative because I take risks. Does that make sense?
MSJ: That makes complete sense. It's a great answer. Listening to the music, I wondered how much of your experience as a young man in New York City during the 1960s informed the album?
Yeah, definitely. I would say when I first came to the city, of course, I was really into the blues and the Soft White Underbelly [precursor to Blue Oyster Cult], the band I joined when I first came to the city, we got to play with a lot of the classic blues people. We played with Muddy Waters and B.B. King. We backed up Chuck Berry, and we played a lot of Bo Diddley songs. Like most musicians, we were fans of The Animals. We met Hendrix. He came and jammed on our equipment. It was all of that stuff. When I was in high school, I was really into the folk scene. Peter, Paul, and Mary, I loved Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and The Weavers, all that stuff. As a matter of fact, I had a group with my brother Joe and our cousin, and they continued after I went off to college with John Cook replacing me. Of course, John is a great songwriter and guitar player, and we've done a bunch of John Cook songs on Blue Coupe's records. I actually had a couple of John Cook songs demoed up for this record, but I think I just wanted to concentrate on my songs.
MSJ: I was pleased to see "Career of Evil" and "Death Valley Nights" on the album. You must have a particular affinity for "Career of Evil" as you've revisited that song a few times now. What prompted you to pick those two songs for the album?
I had actually done a techno version of "Career of Evil" and that's how it started out. I had that and wondered, “What if I do the same thing with acoustic guitar as I did with synthesizer,” so that's basically how that one was born. There was a bunch I did, "Baby Ice Dog" is another one. I did a bunch of demos of Blue Oyster Cult songs and "Career of Evil" is the only one where I was like, “That's pretty cool.” I started getting into the idea of performing it live with an acoustic guitar and a bass drum maybe and I thought it could be very dramatic. So, that one was an easy choice. The other thing is I started thinking about this record in the beginning of 2013 while the Blue Coupe record was being mixed, and the thing that was fresh in my mind was the 40th Anniversary show I did with Blue Oyster Cult, which was great, really great. The hurricane sucked. A lot of people wanted to see the show and they had to go home because they postponed it. Joe was out of town when the hurricane happened, so when they postponed it, he could make it. Patti Smith couldn't, which was sort of disappointing, but it was so worthwhile for the five original guys to play together. I think it was great. I got to spend almost a whole day with Alan Lanier which was great because I hadn't done that in twenty something years. One of the things I sang, "Death Valley Nights,” not with the original five, but with the new guys Kasim [Sulton], Jules [Radino], and Richie [Castellano]. I thought it was really good, more dramatic than the original, but I screwed up the lyrics. [laughs] I got mad about it and thought, “I've got to make it so that it's impossible for me to ever screw them up again.” One of the things I did for the new version was lower the key so I never had to worry about if I'm hitting those notes because some of them are kind of high and I wanted to feel comfortable. I was getting into the Mumford and Sons vibe and how that guy sings, so warm and in your face. I wanted to be able to have more of that quality, but it doesn't, of course, because it's me and it's a Blue Oyster Cult song. I thought it worked for me and played it for a bunch of people, people who were very close to the song said, “Aw man, I liked it better the slow way instead of rushing through it.” I didn't think so, I changed the phrasing so it could be smoother and kinder.
MSJ: You think you'll hear back from Richard Meltzer [songwriter of "Death Valley Nights"] about what he thinks of the song? 
Yeah, I think I do. You just reminded me I have to send him a copy!
MSJ: I was wondering what the significance of the title is for you?
I didn't really know what to call it. I had a bunch of different ideas, but then one of the songs that really vexed me, "Face in the Mirror,” mentions the title. That was something Cathy came up and I really liked the sound of that, like Blue Oyster Cultish. So then I was like, “Maybe I'll call it ‘Metaphysical Incantation.’” I lived with that for a while and then I thought, “’Metaphysical,’ yeah, the Blue Oyster Cult camp would like that, but for the mass public, it might be a little off-putting because people will ask what does ‘metaphysical’ really mean?” You can look it up in a dictionary, but it's one of these nebulous words, what does it mean? It makes you sound like an intellectual. [laughs] So then I thought, “What about just ‘Incantation?’” An incantation, of course, is like a prayer or a spell. It's like magic. It has all of those qualities plus it has the word “cant” in it, like a cantor, a Hebrew cantor, so I just liked that. I'm trying to weave a spell, I'm saying a prayer, I'm trying to exhibit my unique voice. I still really like it.
MSJ: I think it's a fantastic title for the album and for the reasons you mentioned. It has multiple meanings and you can take away your own meanings from the title in relation to the music. What are some of your favorites from the album?
"Ghosts,” of course, that's why I put it first.

"Roadshow" is a good one, but it's kind of my story and a little prosaic, even though it has the whole thing about weaving spells and telling stories.

The third song, "Ravens,” is my favorite because I used Alan Lanier's death as the inspiration for that song. I collaborated with Cathy Vargas on that and, really, Alan Lanier's death is the reason she asked to write a song with me she said because his passing reminded her that she wanted to always ask me this, “I've always wanted to write a song, but I'm a little afraid to and I always wanted to write a song with you.” So as we're writing these songs, she says she lost a good friend in the music business and let's write a song about them, about the passing of a friend. The music of that song is actually based around an Alan Lanier song called "Dance the Night Away.” I didn't actually take any specific things from that song, but just the tonality. It's in 3/4 time. I love that song and it gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. It doesn't get old for me. 

I like "Trinity" because it's very autobiographical. It's about my family and the search to find myself.

The other one is "Voyeur, Pt. 1.” That was one of the first ones Cathy gave me. She is also a teacher at a college in San Antonio, and she was writing it about a particularly creepy professor who would kind of stalk his students. She wanted it to be real mean and nasty and so it kind of started out with that, although it starts off with the mandolin. I thought, “Why not? Led Zeppelin used it in a disturbing way.” So, it was my idea to have it all based on the mandolin in a disturbing way, but when it came to the chorus, I made it very sweet sounding. She objected. She said, “It's not sweet. The guy's a creep.” And I said, “Yes, but it's sung from the first person!” People get addicted to things, voyeurism could be about anything. So that's another one of my favorites and another one is "All Dreaming.” I don't know why, but I could just listen to that over and over.

MSJ: This is probably a foregone conclusion due to the nature of the material, but it really seems like this is the most personal album you've released in your career.
Yeah, definitely…by far. The song "Trinity," I wasn't going to put that on at first because I thought, “this is really taking people into my life and maybe they don't want to go there. Maybe it's too personal.” Joe was the one who convinced me to put it on there, he said, “No, no, this is great!” He said, “I'd love to write a song like this, it's not easy.” I said, “Yeah, I guess so, maybe I don't have a lot of confidence in myself.” The thing is, you listen to that Mumford and Sons record, everything's personal. They aren't afraid to go there. So I went there, and I liked it, so we'll see what happens.
MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2014  Volume 5 at lulu.com/strangesound.
You'll find an audio interview of this artist in the Music Street Journal members area.
 
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