Larry John McNally interview, March 2006
By Georg Forchhammer.
It all started with his self titled debut album in 1981, a fantastic album that put him straight away into the west coast music world. This album was followed up in 1986 with “Fade In Black” that became a kind of masterpiece for the west coast music fans. Then nearly 10 years has to go before the next project “Vibrolux” came. Georg Forchhammer from Blue Desert talks with Larry John McNally about the music career of this talented musician and songwriter.
You recorded your self-titled debut album back in 1981. What expectations did you have to a musical career at that time?
It’s a bit hard to remember what my world view/life philosophy was at that point in my life. Most likely, one from a place of naivete and inexperience. I did expect that I would tour and be welcomed in to a musical community that was ‘higher’ than the local yokel bar scene that I came from in my beginning years. Examples of this happening might be Bruce Hornsby or Norah Jones. One minute total obscurity, next minute wealth, fame, and acceptance in the music community at large. They are the rare exception, but I doubt if there are any artists making music , who are aiming for obscurity! For the most part that didn’t happen for me, and it was a profound disappointment.
One that probably echoes still, however faintly, down the corridors of my soul. An artist hopes that the world will fall at his feet in praise of his creation. If that doesn’t happen, what do you do next? What was the message that the world was sending your way? You’re not good enough? You need to change? In what way? Or, was it just a matter of luck and timing? Up until that point many things had easily fallen in to place for me. From that point on, I knew I’d have to roll up my sleeves, become ‘better’ at what I did, and do a lot of soul searching, which in fact I have done and continue to do. Writing and performing music, I now know, is a lifelong journey.
When did you start writing songs, and what inspired you to your first song writing?
I started writing when I was in college at maybe 19 years old. I had played in rock bands since I was 13 and as James Taylor and the singer/songwriters came in to popularity, it somehow called me to do the same. The problem was, that I was unfocused, unsophisticated, untrained, and undisciplined. Not a formula for great art! Mostly I spent my days and nights banging on guitars and wallowing in confusion over girls, my hormones in overdrive!
After college, I moved to Portland, Maine, and I remember realizing that the songs I was writing might not be bad. Some of them ended up on my first album. I don’t think they are so great now, but they at least have a raw energy. They wouldn’t get past my craft filter now. I had written a song, and that was exciting. I hadn’t yet realized that my songs had to be as good as the best songs that already existed, otherwise what was the point. I’d figure that out later.
After all, when you’re young and just starting out you have to go on blind faith, otherwise you’d just give up at the enormity of the task. One person, who seemed to get his facts learned early, is Bruce Springsteen. There he was at nineteen, already aware of his lifelong vision/plan and actually succeeding at it, over there in Nowheresville, New Jersey. I’m sure that he too was called by girls and guitars as I was, but somewhere in his free time, he was home writing songs that built the foundation of a career that is still standing strong, 25 years later.
Already on your debut album, I have noticed your unique way of playing guitar – not as obvious as later on – but anyway, most singer / songwriters who play guitar tend to have a more or less “James Taylor-kind of approach”, but you seem to “attack” your guitar more like an electric guitar. How did that sound and style evolve?
My guitar playing has evolved slowly over time. In my teenage years I really wasn’t much of a player. There were plenty of guys who could play circles around me (there still are), and it seemed so overwhelming that I didn’t bother to learn much more than the chords necessary to sing along to. I had the attention deficit disorder common to teenage boys. There was a folksinger in Portland, Maine who I met in my early 20s who was a great influence on me. His name was Jeff Rice and his chord vocabulary was harmonically sophisticated and beautiful. He had been part of a local Portland, Maine group called Devonsquare who were main stays of the New England folk scene until the recent sad, untimely death of their leader, Herb Ludwig. Jeff died perhaps in 1986 or so, but that’s another story. I signed on to be Jeff’s backup guitarist, a role, I was under qualified for, but what a learning experience it was. To play music without access to the beautiful world of all available harmony, is like swimming with one arm tied behind your back. Certainly it hasn’t held back Bob Dylan, or Bruce Springsteen for that matter, but for me it was a huge door opening.
One thought counter to that is that there are people who get lost in all those available choices. I went to Berklee School of Music later, and I saw guys there who would never get out of there alive. They’d decided to exit the ‘real’ world and enter the academic world of the solitary pursuit of life’s complexities. Thank God, for the working class ethics of my Mother and Father. They repeated over and over again to me, ‘Lar, there are doers and there are dreamers’, their choice for me being the former. Now I know that both the doing AND the dreaming go hand in hand. After Jeff Rice, I picked up the famous Berklee guitar method books and spent many hours working through the chord changes there. One of my better songs (in my opinion), harmonically speaking, is ‘Katie’s Mood’. It’s an out-take from my first album. That could only have come from my time spent with the Berklee book. Even though I wrote it, it was ‘over my head’ at the time.
At some point at around age 30, I noticed that many of the players in L.A. seemed to have settled in to a level of playing ability, that they were comfortable with, and that most likely would never go past. They were making a living, so what was the point of lonely nights alone, wood shedding with the guitar. Especially, with the girls in Malibu who would love you just the way you were! I decided, Malibu girls notwithstanding, that I needed to go further. I made an arrangement that I would go to Berklee School of Music in Boston, free of tuition in trade for me giving seminars through the song writing department. I remember my private guitar teacher asking me if I was a plumber from Vermont! Probably he’s lucky if he is one now! Not the case with my harmony teacher. He was inspired. I’m sorry that I don’t recall his name, because he deserves much praise. He clarified all the black holes of my harmonic foundation and opened all the doors wide to the possibilities available. One thing I should mention here, that still applies, is that no matter how great my excitement over harmony, songs (for me) are most importantly held together by the strength of the lyric.
That aspect is so time consuming, that there’s little time left for meandering with the music. Get in, get out, and get the songs out in to the world. Case in point. Leonard Cohen. C, A minor, F & G. Don’t need anything else. Still, can you deny the beauty of ‘My Funny Valentine’, or listening to Pat Metheny play? One more person I need to mention is Leni Stern. She’s a jazz guitarist (and more) from New York, who I count now as a close friend. A Dutch guy I met, named Flip Van Domberg Scipio introduced me to her. Flip deserves a book written about him, but that too is another story. Leni wanted to move in to singing and song writing, so I entered her orbit and played and recorded with her for a while. Her clarity and understanding of the guitar and harmony filtered down a bit to me through direct instruction, and partially through ‘osmosis.’ Perhaps, you already know that she is married to Mike Stern. That is one high level music household to walk in to. Believe me, it is a reminder of how LITTLE I know!
In many ways, I think that your 2nd album, “Fade to Black”, from 1986 is interesting. As many other albums from the mid 80’s it is very much produced, but still not smothered in digital effects. In a few songs, like “Chinatown” and “Long Drag From a Cigarette”, I seem to hear that special, somewhat melancholic sound in your voice, which is very characteristic later on in your career. How do you feel about that album today – and about your first album, for that matter?
With appreciation and due respect to my fans and early supporters, I feel that my first two albums were, for the most part, just learning experiences. Looking back, I can see that I ‘found it’ on a song here and there, but the recording process for me at that time, was overwhelming and I was not an artist in control of the medium. From the Atlantic album, I think that ‘Chinatown’, ‘Long Drag off A Cigarette’, ‘Tar on the Roof ‘, and ‘In My Indiscretion’ were quite good. I had a few lucky moments. Michael Ruff and Andre Fischer were my ‘brothers’ and the Gods were shining on us. These were recorded at The Complex in West L.A. long before Gary Katz even entered the picture. When Gary Katz got involved, he didn’t want to use Andre and Michael, and the people that he brought in for me to interact with never were given the time to develop a musical and personal rapport with me. Oddly enough, one of them was Lincoln Schleiffer who later produced my ‘Dandelion Soul’ CD up in The Bronx in New York. Anyway, Steely Dan may have had unlimited budgets in those days to cut and re-cut songs, but that wasn’t going to be the case for me, a new and unknown artist at Atlantic. However exciting it was to be signed to a major label, really it was a ‘throw enough sh*t against the wall mentality and something might stick. I didn’t stick, and they went on to the next. There’s no warm farewell phone call from the record label when they drop you. Like a bad date, you just don’t hear from them again. Image is involved, what’s in vogue in the marketplace, sensitive guidance is required, which songs are good enough, live performance needs to be developed, etc. It probably would’ve been best to have sent me out performing before I recorded either of those two early albums to see how audiences responded to me and the songs. Then make an album. But, there was no one around me at the time with that kind of insight, and I didn’t have enough experience or street smarts to know how to manage the young artist that I was at that time.
Nine years later, in ’95, you released “Vibrolux”. In some ways, it would be fair to call it your second debut album – a whole new sound, very naked, the characteristic acoustic guitar with tremolo etc. What had happened to you musically during those 9 years away from the recording studios? Like many other artists, I guess that you were fed up with the sound of the 80’s, and that it must have been a relief for you to turn to a much more simple sound without tons of digital effects.
Responding to these questions is akin to opening Pandora’s box. Unruly and unpleasant emotions, that have lain dormant for years come flying out. I’ll try and respond with an even temperament. After the lack of response to my 2nd album, I knew it was time to re-evaluate. Whatever I was doing, it wasn’t working. My main source of income, my song publishing deal, ended with the failure of the album. You’re never colder in Hollywood than when you’re sitting there with a dead album in your hands. It will be a few days before your phone call is returned, if at all. My girlfriend at the time suggested I move to the San Fernando Valley (a large Los Angeles suburb of strip malls and tract homes) and she would find me work as a prop person for the movies. I remember another writer, also dropped by the same publisher at the time, who found work as stripper. Hell, if I’d looked good enough I’d’ve taken the job! It was time to start over from scratch- with everything. I became single, I went home and started writing the songs that I wanted to write, whether or not anyone thought them commercial. My sense was that my ‘career’ was over and that I had nothing left to lose. I found a job working construction and I got up very early to work on my guitar playing and songs, just for the sake of the song. No expectations. Clearly, this literal grounding was what I needed and after a while it felt like an uphill move from the nightmare of my recording career. Oddly, this was one of the most magical years of my life. Life became fresh again. I sent a tape to Bonnie Raitt. She called, we met and became friends. Hard to imagine, but she had been dropped by Warner Bros. and was without a record deal, though of course, she was still a star. Fast forward, to her recording my song, ‘Nobody’s Girl’, her winning 5 Grammy awards, selling 6 million copies, and me sitting there with royalties flowing wondering what hit me. Then Bonnie recorded another song of mine on her next album, and I had a hit with Rod Stewart’s cover of ‘The Motown Song’ that I had previously released on MY Atlantic album. OK, I thought, now what!? The punk do-it-yourself aesthetic had filtered in to the world as a backlash against the very world that I’d come from-the 80’s excess of overblown recording budgets and music that only mattered in so much that it filled the overstuffed coffers of the fat cat music executives. It wasn’t only the rock stars who were snorting cocaine…OK, OK, enough of that! What would I like to do now that I could afford to do anything I wanted to do. Well, I wanted to make an album the way that I wanted to, without any calculated interference, and design the cover and package the way I wanted to, without it being nixed by the overloaded, uncaring, hack art department of the major corporations I’d had to deal with in the past. Phew!!
I met Marvin Etzioni at a songwriter-in the-round show in New York and he brought me back to his 16 track analog studio in his house in L.A. Marvin’s story is a long winded one, but to simplify, he was a singer/songwriter/producer who’s had his own taste of the major label debacles with his cow punk band Lone Justice. I wanted to record live in the same room with the band. NO OVERDUBS!! If I made a mistake we’d do it again. Real interaction between the musicians. Like the Jazz record making concept of someone like Chet Baker, making an album in one afternoon.
To be fair, this was Marvin’s idea. I had originally thought that we’d cut the tracks with me, bass and drums and then add other players, but Marvin’s highly sensitive insight and courage, led me to see the power that we had discovered in the trio sound, unadulterated. I consider this my ‘debut’ album. To me it has the purity of an artist vision, one moment in time, without any concessions to the marketplace.
I can see at this point that this essay could go on for many pages. Each person I mention has a back story, full of highs and lows, horrors and humour, trials and tribulations of their own. ‘It Ain’t Easy’, to quote Long John Baldry. I’ll continue…
I started performing Live on the New York scene. This was long awaited by me. I had played live every weekend as a teenager, then went through years of not playing live in the ‘wait and see what happens’ environment of the L.A. record machine. It was great to stand in front of an audience again. This is what defines a performer. You can feel when an audience is with you or not. Whether a song is reaching people or falling flat. Long story short, ‘Vibrolux’ was released in Europe, and I toured there with my New York trio. Finally I had the chance to grow and develop as an artist beyond the confines of my room late at night, or the cold environs of a recording studio. Now in the days of email and websites I’m aware that I had fans from my early efforts, but in those days it felt like an empty vacuum. I think many of my earlier fans were expecting me to continue in the Steely Dan overdub vein, but really, my true self is more a person of instinct and spontaneity, not controlled calculation. In my next effort, ‘Dandelion Soul’, I felt comfortable in adding just a little bit more musical coloration, than I had on ‘Vibrolux’. I wasn’t worried anymore about going to excess, as somehow through experience I’d gained a more comfortable mastery of the recording process.
Normally, unreleased stuff, old demos etc. is being released by artists, who have many albums behind them, but in 2000, after 3 albums, you came out with “Loose Ends”, an album containing unreleased tracks from your entire recording career. What motivated you to make this album?
I much prefer the ‘raw’ thing to the ‘produced’ sound. The more tinkering and thinking involved, the further away from the ‘God’ in the music. Having said this, there are some gorgeous records made the long slow over wrought way. Steely Dan comes to mind. Even Miles Davis’s records were improvised and then slowly edited together. I suspect however, that in these cases someone had an incredible sense of feel and ability to hear ‘it’ when ‘it’ was there. I’ve argued with engineers over my preference of ‘rough’ mixes to ‘final’ mixes. One modern development that I’m fond of is the re mix concept. Beck just released a new album which is a re mix of the same album released just prior. Not ‘dance’ re mixes, but just a different look at the songs/tracks. I read the other day that master perfectionist Donald Fagan was re-releasing a remixed version of his last solo album. I like the idea of multiple versions of the same song. The acoustic version, the Techno version, the radio edit, etc. So why did I release ‘Loose Ends?’ I had made a CD for home listening of my favourite out-takes and unreleased demos etc. I played it for Leni Stern who had just started her own label, and asked if she could release it. Sure, I said. End of story. The longer story is that I have many more ambitions and ideas, than money to carry them out. I’d like to re mix the first two albums and maybe put them together as an ‘early years’ collection. I’d like to re mix ‘Dandelion Soul’ with Bob Clearmountain and release it as a 3 CD set, 1. original mixes, 2.the re mix version, and 3. the entire album performed live. Also, I have a number of live shows that I hope to release in my ‘Live in Lo-Fi’series. At this time, there’s no major label funding my ideas or trust fund either, so, which way the royalty winds are blowing will determine the reality of these projects coming to fruition.
One year later, you came out with “Dandelion Soul” (my personal favourite..) following the musical style from “Vibrolux” though not as “dry”. It was released in The Netherlands, and I can see on your website, that you have performed there several times. How is it to perform in Europe compared to the States – is the audience different?
The only audiences that I’ve encountered anywhere as being different, were the ones in Japan, It’s a cultural phenomenon. They are very polite and respectful, so it tends to be a more demure show, though I love playing there. I do remember playing a small club in Nagasaki, that was pretty loose, so maybe it depends where you are in Japan, though I do think it’s true that at least on the surface, they are a much more courteous culture. Mind you I was warned to make sure that I didn’t step on the white shoes of the ‘Yakuza’ in Kobe. They are the Japanese Mafia and probably not as reigned in by the societal rules of proper behaviour!
The only difference with playing in Europe is that’s it’s exotic for white bread Americans such as myself. There’s nothing better than wandering the streets of Amsterdam for the day then driving off to a show elsewhere in Holland. Utrecht, Maastricht, Brussels, London, Paris, Hamburg, these are beautiful magical places.
I haven’t been so fortunate to see you on stage, but your album, “Live in Lo-Fi” gives a pretty good of how that must be. To me, it seems that you are at your best on an intimate scene just alone or with a few other musicians.
In my opinion, I’m much better Live than I’ve ever been recorded. Even the Live recordings don’t really capture the total mood of the room. The conversation with the audience. The magic echo in the room, the extraneous sounds, the cigarette smoke (in Europe at least!), the faces in the crowd…Yes, if I’m playing solo I can spontaneously react to the audience and my own moods to really sink deeply in to the music. With a big band the other players are counting on you to play it the way you rehearsed it, no matter what night, city, it is. My trios are great fun, though, because we closely watch and feel each other and are able to improvise and really go to some unexpected places. One exception might be in Amsterdam if the rhythm section has been smoking hash all day and have forgotten what key you’re in, or even what a key is, for that matter!
Last track on “Live in Lo-Fi”, “Manic Depression” is a song by Jimi Hendrix. I hadn’t really thought of you as inspired by him, but one might say that, in a sense, you have “Hendrix’ified” the acoustic guitar, or what? (At least, I have just invented a new word.. ).
Yes, I love Jimi Hendrix, though I never studied his licks, note for note as some others have. I’ve really become more of an electric guitarist than an acoustic musician. Even though I use a Gibson Nick Lucas acoustic guitar, I use it with a Sunrise pickup through a variety of vintage amps, so it is a hybrid acoustic/electric sound. I do love Collings acoustic guitars, but by the time you mic or otherwise amplify them, they no longer sound purely acoustic anyway. Also, I’ve fallen in love with tremolo, wah wah pedals, delay pedals and all kinds of fun toys for the electric guitar.
On your website it is possible to download 3 new songs. Are they a part of a new album from you?
These are 3 of about 40 ‘new’ songs I’ve written, including a bunch of instrumentals that I need to record for release in some way. I’ve started and stopped a few times, but not yet found the situation to finish a project. Did I mention the money involved? I returned to Los Angeles in the Fall of 2001 and went through a very opulent writing spree. A lot of it had lain unformed in my New York note books, and since L.A. is a fairly boring place to live, there was nothing to do but dive in. Also, keep in mind that I, along with the rest of the world, was still in shock in the aftermath of the events of 9/11. My son’s pre-school was about 3 blocks from the World Trade Center. He wasn’t there at the time, but it brought it all close to home. I have a lot of ideas of what I’d like to do for my next release. I’m very excited about the songs, and my developing guitar playing, and my new love relationship, the Dobro. I may just simply finish recording a group of 10 or songs and put it out the usual way. What I’d really like to do though is something more ambitious. I’ve been working on my visual artwork for the past 7 or so years and I’d like to do a special package that includes some of that, along with new songs, instrumental pieces, and perhaps a sort of documentary DVD. Since most music is downloaded these days making the CD almost obsolete, I’d like to go deeper in to a new package concept of more than just a cheap CD box, that breaks and is thrown away almost instantly. I want to create a modern equivalent of the old vinyl gatefold albums, that you held and read and was part of the total musical experience. Again, did I mention the money necessary to make real my dreams? Well, first the dream and then the finding the means to achieve it.
Some of your songs have been covered by artists like Bonnie Raitt, (“Nobody’s Girl”), Joe Cocker (“Long Drag Off a Cigarette”) and Don Henley (“For My Wedding”). What do you think of their versions compared to yours – not in terms of which versions being the best, but how they have interpreted the songs?
These 3 ‘covers’ that you mention are all very successful interpretations of ‘my’ songs. These singers all bring an incredible personality to the table. You as listener are already familiar with their great voices, and willing to go on whatever journey they are inviting you along for. Add to that mix songs of this quality and you have the recipe for magic. I say songs of ‘this quality’ with full humility. I am the messenger after all, not the message, and feel very lucky to be on the receiving end of these songs ‘coming through’ from wherever it is they come from. To revisit my thoughts on the ‘raw’ sound vs. the ‘produced’ sound, you should hear the alternate versions of the songs you’ve mentioned. I have bootlegs of Bonnie Raiit, from Italy and Amsterdam, not to mention her original demo, that give me a chill down the back of my neck. Same with Don Henley. He performed a version of “For My Wedding’ on a VH1 special that brought tears to anyone with any sensitivity. He was ‘feeling it’ as they say in the Gospel world, and that’s the point after all, isn’t it? The performer feels it, you the listener feel it, and for a moment we are all one, feeling the joy of the music, the joy of being alive.
Also you can read more Larry John McNally at his official website.