Interview for DPRP with Larry Fast
by Lorraine Kay
Recently Larry Fast spoke with us about his incredible music career. Most people know about his work with Synergy and Peter Gabriel, but that is just a small part of the contributions he has made to the music industry.
LORRAINE: You had a most incredible music and electronics career. Most people know who you are and your track record. I was hoping to hit on some things that are more current. What are you doing now?
LARRY: Some of the more current projects have been print in Europe and Japan to a large extent. There have been a few online things. Not having a current Synergy release, that is generally when you get the burst of work.
LORRAINE: What about Synergy? Are you going to do another Synergy album? Do you miss doing Synergy?
LARRY: Yes, I certainly intend to do more. I am always doing things. I am working and composing right now, but it is for broadcasting media. I’m doing a whole lot of stuff for Tribune Broadcasting for their TV stations. For me the creative process is a little bit different because it’s tailored more like a combination of film scoring and working on miniatures sometimes because they are only 30 second pieces, but many of them, sometimes 50 or 60 of them. So it’s a little different approach but it is still the same things that I enjoy about doing the Synergy records – the process, the creative process and as much as I enjoy working with the technology.
It’s not that different from my vantage point. I’m in the same studio with a lot of the same equipment. It’s just that the end product is a little bit different, which is good because it keeps it from being stagnant on my part. And the end presentation is different. It’s not going to a CD or a final LP or some commodity that is going to be bought in and of itself. It becomes part of something else. So my vantage point is just a little different on it.
So I have become so much busier in that arena over the last 10 to 15 years. And it has been, in a way sort of fortunate, because the record industry itself as we all know has collapsed in on itself. So the underlying – I hate to bring economics and business things to it – but the fundamentals of how a record is financed, is not just the recording of it, but the publicity, the distribution, the making of a product has changed.
I hate using that word product, but that is what the record industry uses, they never talk about what a wonderful piece of artistic creation they have to sell. They always talk about “do we have product from this artist?” Well that whole business model is just altered irreparably, irretrievably from where it was when I was doing the early Synergy albums going back over 30 years. And so to fit into this other model, Synergy, as a production company is needs to be viable so that I can continue to do creative music on its own for music‘s sake when I feel like I want to do it, which is something hard to achieve these days.
In the old days the record company was essentially your patron, and your bank. That’s not there anymore so something else has to move into its place. As I’ve gotten busier in commercial media that’s filled the economic gap. It still gives me the same freedom that I had to create Synergy albums when I was signed to a label. The unfortunate thing, in a sense, is that there are not enough hours in the day. I’m either doing this other thing that I find artistically satisfying but it doesn’t bring Synergy music to a record buying public – what’s left of it, because I am so busy doing the other thing. I’m either creating the underlying environment where I could do a Synergy record, but I don’t have enough time to do one, or if I don’t do that then we’d have enough time to do another Synergy record or two or three, but there wouldn’t be any underlying economic basis to make it possible. So it is a catch-22.
LORRAINE: What is your preference? If you could do anything you wanted.
LARRY: I am also involved in audio design engineering and doing some development on electronic things having to do with the hearing disabled. But that’s very much an electrical engineering approach; mechanical and manufacturing design. I devote a small part of each year to doing that – up to a couple of months.
The cool thing about that is I love doing it. I mean that’s what I loved about synthesizers initially. I loved getting my hands on the hardware. Back in the days of the Moog – really diving in there and getting the soldering iron out, drawing the circuit diagram and modifying a module or coming up with something entirely new. I find that just as creative as creating music. Maybe I have attention deficit disorder or something. Whatever I am doing – if I’m doing – I really don’t think I have a true attention deficit disorder, but I get to a point where I am antsy to do something else. So if I’ve been doing electronic design where there is really no music involved, and then I can’t wait to get back to do something music and creative.
And then there are the sub-sets of that – I might be working on recording somebody’s album or it might be writing things on my own and it might be for commercial entity. But somewhere in the course of that project and process I’ll find myself getting antsy going, “Boy! I’d really like to design a circuit that does such and such.” And I’m lucky in that I am not working in a kind of job where I am doing something over and over and over and over for decades.
There’s always something a little different. It’s always a little finite. An album doesn’t’ take forever – or a broadcast media project. In fact sometimes those are extraordinarily pressured and over quickly – just days or weeks. I know there is always something new and interesting around the next corner that I am going to enjoy and do that for a while and just about the point where I might be getting bored with it I will be able to do something else. I’m kind of at the supreme opposite. I like doing almost everything. I just like the change, I think, to get some variety to it.
LORRAINE: If you were to describe yourself, do you see yourself more of an engineer or a musician?
LARRY: I think more of a composer, creative musician type. But with the underlying skills for the instrument building and hardware. So I’ve got heroes who are composers, you know, wonderful people whether it’s classical composers or more modern composers, or people who are my contemporaries who have made records who I respect highly. But then there is also a whole litany of design engineering people, going back before Thomas Edison right up to guys I was fortunate enough to actually know and work with as engineers – some of the people at Bell Laboratories or like Dr. Bob Moog. So it is a different set of hero worship and I like to bridge those two areas. I like to be able to use the creative tools that come out of the engineering world and do something that has its roots in the purely classical creative field.
LORRAINE: What is it about the synthesizer world that you like? What is it that you feel drawn to? Is it the technology, the different sounds you can get, all the filters, or the ability to orchestrate the whole thing all by yourself?
LARRY: Could you give me a “D” – All of the above? Everything you touched on there. I like the amount of control. When I am in a group ensemble situation I am a little sheepish about telling other people what to do, I have enormous respect for my fellow musicians. Say it is a piece of music that I wrote and there are people that I respect highly who are playing on it. When it is my music I am always finding myself a little embarrassed going, “I want you to play that part or I want you to do this.” But what they’re playing is not exactly right. But, I have been on the receiving end for other people where they are in my face going, “you should have played this and you didn’t play that.” I don’t like being on the receiving end so I hate to be on the delivering end.
The instruments don’t talk back. They are very flexible. Also if I am chasing a particular sound or a particular sub-set of an arrangement or something and I’m working on it for a while and then I decide I don’t like it I can scrap it and nobody’s going to go “Oh, man, I’ve been working on that for like four days and now you’re not going to use it?”
So there’s the social part of it and then the things you talked about. I just have an affinity for the technology. It’s far more computer based now than it used to be but they’re all just tools. I can get the same results from what I hear in my head, whether it was incredibly tedious work on an old Moog modular which might have taken thousands of hours or something that’s in a software synthesizer in a Macintosh now. The end result that I am shooting for isn’t all that dissimilar. So it’s just the tools. I know there are a lot of people interested in the process but many, many more in the listening public really don’t care how you got there. They just care what it sounds like when it’s done.
LORRAINE: Do you have an instrument preference when it comes to composing?
LARRY: No, it works one of several ways. Sometimes it’s just something melodic and it’s just sort of floating in my head. And I need to get it down before it evaporates and just drifts away. It could be something that comes up while I am shaving or while I am nodding off to sleep. Things happen. I probably have lost way more than I have captured. But that is almost independent of any instrument. In fact, in the earlier days I would hear something in my head thematically and it might be just capturing it in the moment on a cassette recorder at a piano. But I wouldn’t say I write on piano. It was really just the only tool available right then, But other times if I am in patch creation mode, and this too goes back to whether it was the older analog instruments or computer based banks, I’ll find something sonically that I find to be a very interesting tonal harmonic sound and I might stumble onto something as simple as a two note chord and that will trigger off the creative process – in how can I use this melodically, structurally and underlying something else?
And I will find that in a sense it is the instrument but it is not that it was that manufacturers’ model number or whatever. It was the instrument that was patched up as an instrument in that sense, at that time. And often different manufacturer’s tools or different software will let you reach that same end point. It just happened to be that I was working on a Kurzweil hardware when I was creating patches or it might have been something in Omnisphere or something else in software, but I created something that I could play with from that point forward
LORRAINE: Do you prefer to start with a melody first or do you build off a rhythm patch?
LARRY: It can go both ways. It really depends on what the end result is. For some of the scoring type of thing for broadcast media there will be computer generated visuals already. And what I will try to do is find what the visual pulse is. It might be something really simple as a metronome click or it might be a little drum pattern or a little melodic sequence. In that case, yes, it is sort of rhythm first, melody second. But other times it is melody first and then it’s trying to figure out what might be the underlying rhythmic backbone that will work later. It is hard to say. With the graphic oriented things it’s usually going to be rhythm first because otherwise it just doesn’t make sense. You just can’t plunk a melody on top and not take into account that you are part of a multimedia team in a sense. But music for music’s sake can go either way, easily.
LORRAINE: You are probably sick to death of people asking you about Peter Gabriel. But what was the creative process when you were working with him? Were they songs that he wrote and you jumped in on the production end of it? Did you contribute composition wise?
LARRY: Probably no more than arrangement. He is really the writer. Peter’s composition styles evolved over a time. But the sort of classic middle period from the third album onward where he was writing with drum machine or drum box, in that case he normally would have a drum rhythm going. Early on there were a couple of those little add-on rhythm machines for organs where you pushed a button for foxtrot, waltz or whatever, that rarely got used that way. There were standard metronomes. The PAiA programmable drum box came out, which was electronic drums in the late 70s, – it was something that was designed by a couple of friends of mine. We were finishing up Peter’s second solo album – we got him a finished version of it and he wrote “Games Without Frontiers” and “Biko” and a number of songs based on these programmable drum patterns.
It was the first time a little hardware box let you pick out a pattern like – “I’m gonna go kick drum, snare, tom, kick, tom and then make it loop.” Prior to that, they already had the patterns picked out for you. So when I was first brought into the process on the third album, Peter had the ability to sit down at the piano and play most of the song if not the entire song – at least the verses and maybe what the chorus was going to be. In most cases, he didn’t have words – he might have a hook line or something. He was just kind of humming and yodeling along approximately where the melody was going to end up and even that didn’t always stick. What would happen is we would cut the rhythm track. He would fashion it with little bit of input from the band members but with just the piano, bass, drums, and him scratch vocalizing at approximation of where he was going. And he would occasionally have a little guitar added and occasionally I’d contribute something, but we’d get down at least the backbone, the spine of the song on tape and the nearly finished parts of the rhythm track at least.
And then it would go to town, because he would be playing with lyrics, playing with melodies. He’d sometimes have an idea in his head of some sound he wanted to try and he would describe it for me to chase, which I could do. And sometimes he might have stumbled on something on his Prophet 5. Or sometimes he would just turn me loose. And sometimes he would be too busy doing something else and I wasn’t going to waste all of our time in the studio so I would just start working on something and grab a master tape at tea break and say “what do you think of this”?
And he was pretty candid. Sometimes he would say it was brilliant and it would be on the record. Other times he would say – “Not really what I had in mind.” But he was always so nice about it. When it wasn’t what he had in mind, he was just the most generous and polite about it. He was just a very humble person himself and it was a great working environment.
Personally I don’t like pushing other people around. Peter had a nice middle way where he could be enormously polite but he also has a kind of cultural respect where “the man has spoken; let’s listen to what he has to say. It’s not taken as – “Hey! You’re no better than me, why should I listen to you?”
But in my case, I don’t want to stifle someone else’s creative input. That’s the danger. I don’t want to stifle them. I want to give them that freedom, but when the end of the day comes, and I go, well, they didn’t really come up with anything. I didn’t stifle them, but they didn’t really fill the gap either.
LORRAINE: Do you have a place that you go inside yourself for creativity? Do you have a muse?
LARRY: I don’t think I have a particular one. Not a kind of spiritual anything. What I do is schedule to clear some time to sit quietly for reading or just focus on what I want to come up with and let the ideas just kind of churn around and they gel. Almost a built in time thing.
Sometimes if I am frustrated about not getting over the next creative barrier – if I just walk away from it for a day, if I have the luxury, if I am not up against a hard deadline or something – it’s really interesting how the log jam will break at that point. By the same token very much like writing text. Very often I will have to do essays or letter writing or articles or anything connected to something that I am involved with. So, going back to that English 101 thing in college, I write it, and put it away and don’t look at it for a day and come back, and all the non-sequiturs where the unfocused sentence structure and all that will jump out at me.
And I find it’s the same with the music too. I will get my head inside the speaker when I am working on an arrangement and I think it’s brilliant and it can be as short amount a time as just putting everything in standby, going out to dinner, even going out to a diner for 90 minutes or something, come back, play it back and going – “What was I thinking, that doesn’t make any sense?” Structure and post structure parts – start again.
That’s a little bit more of the producer head. I think it’s important to keep that in mind. Keep a focus as a composer on what I’m presenting. In some ways it’s like media, it’s like what’s my lead here? That could be the lead line or the rhythm, but what am I selling to my listener who never heard this before? What do I want them to take away from this? That’s some of it.
If it’s not working, I will sit down quietly, no TV on, maybe read the paper or something where I can let my mind drift And then it’s not like I’m going to a spiritual place. It’s almost like I get into a little discipline thing thinking that if I do this – will that work? Then, to see if the ideas gel. And then sometimes I come down to my studio thinking, “Okay, let’s try to execute those ideas in my head.” Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. Back to square one try it again.
LORRAINE: You have had a really incredible career. What things do you look back at now and can say, “Gosh I was really blessed?”
LARRY: Oh! a lot of it. A lot of the record industry is just such a capricious monster or was. It is becoming less so now because the very things that made it such a self-indulgent, capricious, money-wasting monster have come back to eat its own lunch, But there were a lot of things that I was lucky enough to put myself in the right place at the right time, and be persistent with the right people in the business. I got to know nearly – and work with nearly – everybody who I respected early in my career. And I am talking really early.
One of my first keyboard heroes was Mike Smith from the Dave Clark Five, during the Beatles invasion. I later got to know him and work with him on commercials in New York, which is what he was doing in his later career. And it was wonderful meeting this guy who I had watched on a little black and white TV in my rec room at my parents’ house as a kid, and going, “I want to do something like that”. And here I was sitting in a restaurant with him in New York and he’s telling me about when they played the Ed Sullivan Show. As I was moving into the business I was working with people I respected like Rick Wakeman and Wendy Carlos, who I got to know shortly afterward and we became very very good friends. Very happy with that. There were a lot of contemporary people that I knew since we were starting together. I was getting started around the same time that Genesis was starting to make their breakthrough, so I got to know Peter as a little bit more of an equal.
And it was just really flattering that he asked me to join him after he left Genesis, literally within a few months at the time. He had walked away. He had started plotting what he was going to do next. He had me in the mix so it wasn’t anything I particularly chased but it was somebody who I liked and respected as a contemporary and it just worked out. I had ten wonderful years of doing that.
Through him I met a lot of other really great guys like Tony Levin and Jerry Marotta. It’s just been one good thing after another. Even getting to know Bob Moog. Bob Moog hooked me up with a project at Bell Labs in the mid 70s that he couldn’t do but which is much nearer to where I live here in New Jersey. I also met a lot of really brilliant software engineers and computer music people decades ago – 35 years ago – where I was able to be exposed to the things that we take for granted on laptops now. But it was just all gratuitous things one after the other.
LORRAINE: Any regrets? Something you did that you wish you hadn’t or some opportunity that you missed?
LARRY: You can’t do everything, so there are always some projects you can’t do. Early in my career I did a lot of sessions because that is what was bringing the money in, so I ended up playing on some just awful disco records. But it was anonymous and they were for labels like All-Platinum Records and other small R&B labels that were moving into something else. For me it was wonderful exposure because it was a wonderful kind of urban environment and I met some great musicians and some really out-there people who I never would have been able to learn from otherwise. Often I would be the only white guy on the session.
Well you know I was this nerdy guy with all the knobs but they loved the sounds and it exposed me to another aspect of the music business and a creative community. If I had only focused on electronic music and European progressive rock I never would have run into any of that. And it taught me so much about rhythm and groove and how those records went together. Some of the records themselves were terrible. But it was a learning experience, so I regret that some of the records got made but I don’t regret the experience. Eventually as things got more successful there was a kind of collision of time. There aren’t enough hours in the day. So I have been very fortunate to work on some pretty big records. I have worked on a bunch of Foreigner records, Hall and Oates records and one of the biggest turn of events was with Jim Steinman, who is a producer- writer.
I started out working on the Meat Loaf records that he had written all the music for and his solo albums and a number of things like The Everley Brothers and film scores. But probably the biggest one was Bonnie Tyler. I worked with him as a player with a little bit of production involvement on Total Eclipse of the Heart. And when her follow-up album was to be done I was asked to be the associate producer on the record. That was a very prestigious position for a very multi-platinum selling artist – far better selling than anything Peter Gabriel had ever done at that time.
As it was, Peter was kind of stagnant at the time and he was trying to write the next album. It was dragging on literally for about 2 years where there was no touring and there was no recording. So in the meantime I was offered this very prestigious position in the studio with an artist, far bigger than Peter was at the time. I would have to have been kind of silly to say, “No I’m going to wait by the phone for Peter Gabriel to call me.” So, I went into that project and had a yearlong commitment. During that time, Peter finally did call and say “I’m ready to start on what became the “So” album. And I simply wasn’t available. I had signed a contract.
So I kind of regret that there was a collision there, because from that point forward Peter changed the band that he had had for ten years and I never toured with him again after that. So there is a little bit of a tinge of regret in all of that but on the other hand working with Bonnie Tyler and Jim Steinman lead to many other things so maybe it was a good thing in some regards because I wouldn’t want to just be the keyboardist in the Peter Gabriel Band for a whole 35 years.
LORRAINE: Anyone that you have not worked with that you would still like to?
LARRY: Well, yeah, and I don’t think it will ever happen. I just have an enormous respect for Paul McCartney. I think his work as a pop song writer is historic. But some of the work he has done with his orchestral works, I think, is very interesting and I have always gotten a sense that there is an area in the middle that it forms his sensibility. So the Broadway music and the music of the 20s through the 40s and with my kind of Gershwinesc approach from time to time is something that I think he could explore and do really well with.
He touched on that early in the Beatles career when they were doing some Broadway standards. But I think that there is somewhere that bridges the components that make him the writer that he is and some of the things that I’ve worked with over a time. And I would just love to do that. I have many friends that have worked with him including Jerry Marotta, the drummer who played with Peter for many years. It would be a really nice thing; I would really love to do that.
LORRAINE: Anyone that has passed that you wish you would have been able to work with them?
LARRY: Nobody particularly comes to mind. It might be because I’m sort of a solitary work on my own. I can’t think of anyone off the top of my head. It would have been nice to meet Stravinsky, sit down and have a cup of coffee with Leonard Bernstein or Aaron Copland. There’s a bit of a regret in there. John Lennon of course, things like that. It is not really overwhelming.
I’ve had this career where I do work with other people. But when it comes down into focus, I try to keep sight of that I am really responsible for me and I shouldn’t be hitching what I do to someone else’s career. It’s fun and it’s enjoyable and they can bring some prestige to it but at the end of the day if I haven’t contributed anything then I am just another side man. So it is more of a sitting down and having a cup of coffee kind of thing.
Take Wendy Carlos – we’ve been really close friends for over 30 years now, and we talk on the phone fairly regularly – at least every couple of weeks and get together. And neither of us has ever said; “Let’s collaborate,” because we don’t really do that. We are both individuals; her working style is so different from my working style. The things that have formed who she is and why she takes a creative approach are so different from mine. She was never a rock and roller. She has never played in an arena in front of 90,000 people. And I never went to classical conservatory. But we both appreciate what the other one does. And I’m happier doing that. I do like hearing the process almost to understand how the other one puts things together. But collaborations aren’t always the ultimate solution.
LORRAINE: Do you like performing live, or do you prefer just working in the studio?
LARRY: Studio is probably a little less nerve racking. Live performance can be really exciting. I like it in the band context because it seems to take some of the structured edge off of it. I like it to be structured enough so that I don’t have any unexpected speed bumps or pot holes.
With the Tony Levin Band, we toured extensively over the last decade or so, everywhere from Japan to Russia across the U.S. and Europe – sometimes with the four of us, sometimes five of us. It’s great – it’s very focused. We rehearse extensively and get out there, but if something goes wrong, if I screw up, if I’ve got a little equipment hiccup or something it’s easy to just laugh it off. We don’t’ take it that serious.
So I don’t mind live performance but it still keeps me a little more on edge. It doesn’t keep me up at night, so once we settle into a tour, maybe by the fifth or eighth date we know pretty much how things are going to go, equipment wise, the monitors and even how each of us is going to react to different things musically. Then I find myself relaxing a little bit. But you never can completely, because you are up there. People have paid good money to see you, everything should really go right and that’s a little different than the studio. If something doesn’t go right, now, you fix it.
LORRAINE: Have you ever had any train crashes?
LARRY: Oh no, never (he said sarcastically). With the Peter Gabriel Band, Peter was usually the one responsible because he was terrible about forgetting his own lyrics or getting lost in the song. Does it go around three times here or six times? One time we just crashed and burned on a song when we were playing an open air concert in Central Park, New York. He literally stopped the song, apologized to the audience and then we started over again because he couldn’t find the “one” on one of his own songs. It was a little complicated and he came in entirely in the wrong place and we just couldn’t recover from it.
LORRAINE: I saw you earlier this year in Carlsbad at the Museum of Making Music at the opening event for Bob Moog Foundation Exhibit and got to hear you give a very detailed and organized lecture. Do you enjoy doing that sort of thing?
LARRY: Yes, I do. I have done others. I did one at MacWorld one year. You could see there was a history of technology there was parallel in that. And I am fairly involved in that with museums and history commissions so I get involved in program presentations. In fact I have something coming up on historic architecture for which I’m sort of a producer on the “Period of Interpretation on Historic Architecture.”
LORRAINE: In addition to Bob Moog do you have another favorite pioneer in that area?
LARRY: To me Bob was in some ways a little like the Beatles because he brought in all these threads that had come from before him, Theremin, Novachord, Teleharmonium, and he took all of that – just the way the Beatles took earlier rock and roll and they took a little country, a little R&B and they created a synthesis that was so much more effective than any of those little component parts were on their own. Bob did that both with technology and the tools – even the things that were contributed by his inventing co-collaborators – people that were working at Moog music – and guys like Herb Deutsch, and then later Wendy Carlos. But there were others who took the next steps. There were the computer people, like Max Matthews who kind of single-handedly created the American computer music world in the early 50s. It really predates the Moog synthesizer stuff by 10 or 15 years. There were other people that have worked with Max – some of these just ended up being more obscure names. There were people who have done things like created the underlying math behind digital reverberations – guys like Manfred Schroeder at Bell Labs. They are names that are out there in the highly technical community but and I have a lot of respect for what they did.
There are others who just took what Moog had done and took it to the next step, like Dave Smith at Sequential Circuits, who took everything that was great about the MiniMoog and made it polyphonic and computer controlled. And then he was brilliant enough to create what later became MIDI. It opened everything up for the way we moved forward. But even the computer people, the ones who were the home-brew computing clubs in the mid-1970s who started creating microprocessor based tools leading to Steve Wozniak and his contribution to creating Apple and getting a computer platform into everybody’s house or at least starting us on that path – they created one thing after another. So there are a lot of different little names that can pop into there but there aren’t as many who ended up with their names in the dictionary like Bob Moog.
LORRAINE: The music industry has really changed. How do you foresee marketing your projects in the future?
LARRY: Yeah, they are shrinking the floor space for CD, tapes and such in Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Target because we really don’t have very much of those big record chain, and people aren’t buying that way anymore. I know even on my own catalog sales, it’s a majority of downloads, not physical media. But with the breakdown of the whole structure, the way record companies used to operate, what I see changing is that there will be a lot of labels, even though they may not be selling a lot of physical media, but little groups of collectives of individuals who are the creative part. And the part that is growing in importance is the distribution arm, even for physical media. But the major labels don’t really have the clout that they used to. It is certainly shrinking and the independents, even independent distributors are doing a lot of their dollar volume in DVD distribution. But they are maintaining some hard CD physical presence, and they do have the tools to put the product in the pipeline. That is something that is not going to go away entirely and that also depends on the age group. The younger pop music buyers are predominantly electronic purchases at this point. The baby boomers I think are going to be hanging onto a physical media thing longer. They may have one foot on either side, but they’ll still be buying CDs.
LORRAINE: Is that cost effective from an independent artist’s stand point?
LARRY: It depends on who is paying for it. In the old days when the record company was your bank they paid for the pressing and they ate the problem if they didn’t sell. Your account in theory was in the red, you weren’t going to get any royalties until your first album that didn’t sell paid back and your second one went into the black as well, if that ever happened. So it is entirely possible to have an entire career with a major label that was moderately successful in the public’s eye and never make a dime.
On the other hand someone could print their own album and order a few thousand but could end up with a garage full of CDs because they only sold a few hundred. And then they end up on an iTunes or something through CD Baby and they find they sold another 600 through soft media, so they should be very cautious or on an as-needed basis to literally print a hundred at a time.
LORRAINE: From the quality aspect, where do you draw the line as an artist? Downloads are pretty good, but you do lose something, especially when it comes to electronic music. But some people don’t want anything to do with downloads.
LARRY: I know. It is really tough because the audience in a sense is what drives it. And it has been very frustrating. It is not only in audio but the proponents of blue-ray, high definition video are finding that they are getting good acceptance but not as much as they had hoped for. Not as much as they really need to sustain that format long-term. Because in most cases people go, “You know it’s good enough on DVD. It looks pretty clear to me.”
And that’s what you are getting with 128k compressed mp3 iTunes crowd. For most of them it’s like, “Hey, good enough.” And in some ways it’s like when people listened to a lot of AM on their car radios in mono when great records were made. I’m just honestly not sure. It’s possible to do 24 bit and some of the other formats but they are rather obscure and are not really carried for the most part on iTunes. That could give some people the ability, the more golden ears to get better down loaded files. But it is going to be tough.
The unfortunate thing is that it is less expensive to do a short run of CDs that are very high quality. You can run a hundred with 4-color-4 panel printed materials for a couple of hundred bucks and if that is all you’re going to sell as a small artist then you are good to go. Or if you need more you can turn them around in five days and have more inventory. It’s really a question of how does it go out through the pipeline.
Early in my career, the most important thing, of course, was that distribution was good from the record label. Initially they were picking up the bills for the studio costs, all the pressing and the vinyl and literally putting it on trucks and getting it somewhere. But they also paid very good money for a publicist. They worked the record from two sides. From radio promotion, back when radio was playing my kind of stuff, so they had them working the radio stations. But the publicists were cranking stuff out, too. They would have me doing interviews for days in a row, one an hour or one every 90 minutes. It was with the wire services, with things like CBS radio news syndication or CBS news syndication that would go out to all of the member stations within that group, making sure that I was doing meet and greets with DJs and other music writers and that was really it. They were creating a public image.
And that’s where I started to realize when I was kind of new in the business how it worked. I used to think, “How is that person getting so much attention, they are really crappy.” I’d hear some record and everybody’s talking about them. Then I started to see the machine behind the curtain and that’s probably the single biggest thing that is falling apart with the demise of the major labels. Back when we had 7 or 9 major labels and distribution networks, they were all fighting each other. But now we only have two major labels and two kinds of mini majors which are in some cases in dire straits financially, and then a ton of independents. And the whole machine is just different.
In fact last night I ran into my old publicist and she had worked with major labels for a big part of her career. Well that is not there, anymore, so she is an independent publicity shop in New York now and working directly with artists or directly with managers, but not with the labels nearly as much anymore.
So this is another expense in launching a career that seems to be absolutely vital. Take Lady Gaga. They have turned her into a full-blown media phenomenon and the records are just along for the ride. Now that is taking it to an extreme and unfortunately the major labels are down to the point where that’s the low hanging fruit so they are taking marginally creative acts and marketing the hell out of them and making it into something that is a money tree for the shareholders.
But there is something to be learned in there even for the small and independent and creative artist. If you are doing it and making the records and they can be brilliant, absolutely wonderful, and if nobody knows that they are out there beyond your immediate circle – well. Maybe you’re happy with that, but if that’s not your goal then you need to take some lessons from that. It doesn’t mean you have to go and turn yourself into that kind of marketing hype.
My future calculus on any of this would be that I would probably budget three to four times as much for publicity and marketing and promotion than I would for actually making the recording. Making the recording has gotten a lot cheaper so that helps. But it is a big, big part of the puzzle. “If a tree falls in the woods…” And it depends on what your goals are. I know some artists who are creative and they are brilliant and they really don’t have any bit of ego attached, they’re really not in show business. They are just creative people. They can sell 400 CDs when they do it. They’re working another job or doing something else and they are very happy with that and that is fine, more power to them that is just great.
But if you are going to try to create a career where you really are a known entity it does take having at least enough ego to say “look what I did”. I find that I’m not very good at doing that myself. That’s why I would rather turn that over to people who know how to do that kind of marketing and promotion. But it’s falling apart, that is the point.
The whole industry that had served as gate keepers, you go into the machine and there was a wide range of things, there was always an equivalent of Lady Gaga that was selling well, and nobody could figure out why. Nobody in the creative community could because they weren’t seeing the machine. But then there were lots of less-successful artists in terms of selling platinum numbers, but successful nevertheless – artists who were doing meaningful creative stuff.
LORRAINE: You majored in History. How did you bridge over to all this engineering stuff?
LARRY: Well, the lucky thing when you are majoring in history is that you have a ton of open electives and I was already skilled in electronics – an advanced hobbyist or whatever – so I had some of the skills already. So, I took engineering courses that I felt I needed.
They were ones where I never took enough engineering to actually get a degree as an engineer because if you are going to be a certified electrical engineer you need to be studying all different aspects of engineering. That’s what the license part is, you know, a bit about building bridges and doing mining and mechanical engineering and structural engineering and all that. I just wanted to get to some digital circuitry and analogue circuitry that would help me make sounds. So I studied some of that.
I took all the music courses that were available that I was interested in – Twentieth Century composition, some theory and stuff. I was also interested in architecture. Probably the most important thing in college was that I was overwhelmed and obsessed with college radio which lead me to work in commercial radio. And through those connections, that was really my entrée into the record business. That’s kind of how I bridged it. I basically made my own curriculum up to get me the skill sets that I needed for what I am doing now.
LORRAINE: Did anyone else in your family play music?
LARRY: No. my mother played a little violin as a kid. My father was a trumpet player in a marching band, but he was the one that they told “just don’t make any sound, just keep marching.” One of my brothers is an engineer and the other is a lawyer. I have got a couple of nieces and nephews who are kind of music obsessive. They don’t work in the business at all but they tend to go to these three day rock festivals and see lots and lots of shows. They post pictures on Facebook about where they have gone. I have one niece who is obsessed with theater. She’s actually working as a stage manager now.
My wife is a music fan – a little bit more music snob than I am. She is not a player but she is an avid listener and concert goer. The good thing is that she has seen behind the curtain now and she sees how it works and she is equally comfortable with record execs and agent types of people. And she’s understanding and she’s charming with all of that. And she has the right cynical edge not to be taken in by the hype.
Actually all the stuff that I described about designing for the hearing disabled – that is an outgrowth of me helping her. That is what she does. She is an electronic technician. She has that background. She deals with the techie side of things and she has worked in installation and maintenance for recording studios and on Broadway and that kind of stuff so we share a lot of that part of our lives too. It’s a good fit and good match. She’s very involved in environmental movements and wildlife preservation and land preservation so she volunteers for a lot of that.
LORRAINE: You grew up in New Jersey? Have you any of the influence of the Jersey sound?
LARRY: The guys that I know and work with overlap with a lot of them. I produced David Bryan from Bon Jovi. I produced his solo album in the 90s. I worked with Richie Sambora. I knew a lot of those guys. They were a little younger than I am but we knew them as they were coming up as a bar band. And the E Street guys. I knew Max Weinberg going back. He was at the rival high school from me, always in a rival rock band. There’s an awful lot of coincidence in how that works out. Little Steven was producing some of my friends from high school more recently as a reunion album so I was playing on that. So the influence is sort of that post-Beatles-garage-band New Jersey scene. Yes, it definitely had an influence. It was a distinct culture for such a small state.
A lot of them John and Bruce and that whole crew are based at the Jersey Shore and I am about an hour away from that. I can get into New York quicker than I can get to the shore. So if I was influenced by things it was probably even more of the New York scene, whether it was the rock scene down in the village during the psychedelic days or the academic communities around NYU or Columbia. For electronic music they probably had more of an influence on me than the Jersey Shore bar scene, although I thought it was cool. I was never caught up in it but I never really played in that circuit. Even the Jonas brothers came out of Jersey. It’s in film, television and music. The Four Seasons, of course, were around. I worked early on in my career with the guys that wrote their music. In fact, I was doing a session with Frankie Valli the afternoon that Elvis died. Everyone in the studio had worked with Elvis and the session ground to a halt and they started reminiscing and I was basically the kid, I was 10 years or more younger than everybody else on that session. It was amazing to hear them talk about him.
LORRAINE: One of the nicest people in the music industry that you will ever meet, Larry keeps busy with his many projects for film and television. Fans of course are always hoping for a new Synergy album and a live performance. To keep up with all that Larry is doing go to his official website – link below. It is a bit behind, but if you email him from there I am sure you can get the latest and greatest news. Larry also has a Facebook page.
Interview for DPRP by Lorraine Kay