by Ian Koss
No, astute readers, your eyes don't deceive you. It is indeed Edgar Allan Poe appearing below, as that was the supplied image for Closed on Account of Rabies, the latest offering from Hal Willner.
Willner has been catching my ear ever since I heard Stay Awake, an anthology of Disney's music as interpreted by an eclectic mix of artists. The album caught my ear not only for its concept, but because of its execution -- unlike the mashed-together jumble of sappy tribute that was beginning to litter the airwaves at the time, Stay Awake was a monolithic experience, an album that flowed well from start to finish despite a disparate collection of moods and artists. At the same time, I noticed his name on The Carl Stalling Project, an anthology of music made for the early Warner Bros. cartoons, and shortly thereafter I came across Amarcord Nino Rota, a tribute to Fellini's soundtrack composer. Willner's name was certainly one to watch...
A couple of years later, I ran across Weird Nightmare, another Willner project, this one tackling the music of jazz genius Charles Mingus. Like Stay Awake, it mixed artists without regard for their genre or category -- Chuck D, Henry Rollins, Elvis Costello and Keith Richards all make appearances, and the album lives up to its name, giving the time you spend listening to it a strange, other-worldly quality.
Willner's latest excursion is a set of Edgar Allan Poe readings set to music. The cast (once again) is stellar: Deborah Harry and Iggy Pop performing alongside Christopher Walken and Ken Nordine. As you might imagine, the results are unusual and magnetic. I got a chance to talk to Willner on an overcast December afternoon...
I know your work through the compilations you've assembled -- Stay Awake, Weird Nightmare -- is there any kind of regular production you've been doing lately?
You mean like producing artists? I've done quite a bit... Marianne Faithfull, Gavin Friday. A spoken word album with Allen Ginsberg. William Burroughs... would you call that normal production? I haven't done Hanson.
That's a plus.
I was just kidding. They were the first group that came to mind.
Do you enjoy that kind of production more than the compilations?
I've been lucky enough (or unlucky enough) to do things in all different areas: records, films, television. I started out doing these conceptual projects basically to make the records I wanted to hear, and no more reason than that. I thought something would grow out of it, and it did. These last two, September Songs [a Kurt Weill tribute] and this one, find me moving on from the Mingus and Disney records. They've all been so different -- the Disney ended up being so Cecil B. DeMille... This record was the idea of Michael Minzer, who was the executive producer of Burroughs' Dead City Radio and Allen's [Ginsberg] Lion for Real. It was sort of a work for hire project, as opposed to my own concoction.
How do you come up with your concepts? They can get pretty elaborate...
Some of them have been small. The Nino Rota was small, the Mingus was relatively small. I come up with an idea, get a few seeds planted, and then watch what happens. I don't come into it with too many preconceived notions, just a few strong framework ideas. I have to learn about what I'm doing, and be open to which way it's going.
How do you pull together a roster of artists? Your records always seem to have a pretty diverse crowd performing on them.
I'll have certain concrete ideas about certain things, and from there it's a matter of running into certain people during the project. A lot of people that end up on these records I just happened to run into on the street during a good week. I like working under berserk circumstances.
Does that give you the results you like?
Well, I can't say I'm bored. It's about taking chances, and occasionally you're going to fail, and occasionally you'll do great. You try to grow as you go on, and not repeat yourself. I've had the fortune to be around some amazing people.
Do you find people seeking you out specifically to work on these projects?
You have your peaks and valleys. Someone said I'm lucky that I've never had a legit "hit" record -- you can't be a has-been if you've never been a been. There has always been someone willing to put out my records, so I was able to create a niche, and that's positive and negative.
What are some projects you'd like to be involved with in the future?
It's weird to say this, but so much of what I've done has been a dream of mine. I just finished a six-CD set of Lenny Bruce for Rhino. I couldn't have dreamed of doing that. It's from tapes of his material, and half of it is unreleased. I'm doing my own solo record, for Howie B's Pussyfoot label. That was not my idea. There are certain things, certain artists maybe, that I hope will ask me to do something someday. I would like to do another TV show like Night Music. I liked putting my kind of combinations on TV. But I've been able to do most of what I've wanted to do -- at the expense of my hair and personal life. There's a price! [Laughs]
These projects get pretty involved... how do you know when you're done?
Oh, you know when you're done. It's like running around the bases. You know when you're turning third. I try to -- whether I've been successful or not, I try to make the journey a cohesive work which you can listen to from beginning to end. I plan a beginning, middle and end when I start something, and I have that strong framework when I start. I'm also aware of how long something should be -- people don't like putting out double records, though sometimes that's what you have to do.
How detailed are your plans?
I keep a few concrete ideas. Like for the Nino Rota album, I knew I wanted to hear Carla Bley arrange "8 1/2," and on the Monk album I wanted Dr. John to do something with NRBQ... or Ringo to do "When You Wish Upon A Star." Keith Richards to do "Lord, Don't Drop That Atomic Bomb." I have specific things in mind, and then I let it go from there. Foundations, and from there it's a mixture of experimenting and whatever else happens.
Do you have these things in mind because you've discussed them with the artists before?
No. Usually it's something I've thought of beforehand.
Did you call Keith Richards out of the blue?
There's usually a sense that they'd be interested. In the case of Keith, I had this idea, and I happened to know the Uptown Horns, who were on tour with him at the time, and they liked the idea that they'd be involved, so they talked to him. It's not hard to get a hold of anybody. And as I'm doing more and more records, I'm getting a bigger and bigger phone book -- there's now people I use on more than one record, common thread people. I can't say that it's getting easier to do this, because I started out very simple. The Nino Rota album was mostly solo performances. I don't really have any plans for any multi-artist records right now.
Do you think you've had a fairly high success rate in putting these albums together?
None of the records have ever gone platinum. A lot of them have not reached what I think is their potential audience. I'd like to reach that audience, but given the fact that I can still make them, I'd say that yes, they are successful.
Well, by success I mean the records meeting your expectations...
I like all the records, depending on my mood... I don't really go back and listen to them much, because it's not a healthy thing to do, to obsess on stuff. In a weird way, I'm happy there's flaws in them for me, since that's reason to go and do another. If you make a perfect record, you're done, then you buy an island, I guess. If you really are going to go out and take chances and experiment, you're going to have moments that are more successful than others. Today is the first day that I'm doing press on this record, and three or four reviews have already come in. What I've thought was not happening at all has been getting great reviews.
In Weird Nightmare, you used these giant musical devices, the Partch Instruments... where do you find those?
They're in New York right now, in storage. I don't know if I could get them again. I was nuts at that time, and I really wanted that sound., and we pursued and pursued and we got them.
I take it they're unique, one-of-a-kind...
Absolutely! You can hear it on the record.
Have you been able to find other unique sound sources like that?
Right now, on my solo record -- I like that, "my solo record" -- I'm using a collection of found 78 [rpm] records as dance samples. That sounds new to me, though I'm sure someone has already done something like that. But I don't go out specifically looking for things like this. The Partch instruments, for what I wanted to do with Mingus' music, just fit in. I was listening to a lot of Folkways field recordings at that point, and I wanted a lot of the Mingus music to feel like that. I saw the Partch instruments in concert, and they seemed really natural for that.
I imagine it was difficult to engineer in the studio.
We were in a huge studio, but yeah. It was amazing, to look in that room and see the bass marimba, and the glass bowls... it's on film, by the way. Ray Davies made a film about it.
From the Kinks? Where could you find that?
It's actually on film in Europe and Japan. I've never seen it here. It's called Weird Nightmare -- you can find it with a bit of research. I love Ray, but we had a different... it wasn't a difference of opinion in a bad way, but I think that he couldn't get it out of his head that this wasn't really a tribute record. [My records] are tribute records in a certain sense, but that's not the purpose of them. It's more about using a body of work to take a musical journey.
I think a lot of "tribute" records are misguided...
They farm out tracks, and there's no single person looking at it. I'm doing my own child psychology here! It was probably an overdose of those records that curbed my doing it, but a lot of those things are for really good charities, so what can I say?
Have you heard any of the records that the Red Hot Organization has put out?
Sure. I probably influenced the first one, the Cole Porter tribute. I was approached about that. But I wouldn't have been the right person for it. They were out to make money for AIDS, and there's people that do that better than me.
In those cases, there's such a fine line that needs to be walked between artistic and commercial viability.
If I were to make say, a Mingus record for muscular dystrophy, I'd get killed. For doing what would be called "self-indulgent shit." That's not what you do if you want to make millions of dollars. Perhaps one of [my] records could break. Had it been understood, the Disney record could have been a hit.
How did Stay Awake do?
It sold quite well, but it wasn't what they expected. Considering how well-known that music is, and what happened with some of those tunes... it didn't go anywhere near where it could have gone. The Disney Organization did not like that record at all.
Did they regret giving you the go-ahead?
Probably, later. Initially they were fine. For example -- this will make you crazy -- the Ringo Starr track, "When You Wish Upon a Star," with Herb Alpert, Bill Frisell and Jim Keltner... I knew Fellini a bit, from the Nino Rota album. I had a writing relationship with him; he did the liner notes. I heard he wanted to do music videos, so I wrote him about that. He would have done a video, but they didn't want to pay for it. Think about that.
This would have been Federico Fellini, directing Ringo Starr singing "When You Wish Upon A Star"...
... with Herb Alpert. You know how great that could have been?
That would have been insane.
But that's when I got pissed with someone at that company -- I won't mention his name, but I said "why are you in this business?" Of course, that was me, being Mr. Naive. He's in the business for his Malibu house, probably. It doesn't do you any good to try to think everyone else should be like you. But yes, I got to do Weird Nightmare, and yes, I got to do [the Poe album], and I got to do the Lenny Bruce, so I have nothing to complain about.