An Interview with Roger Powell and Gary Tanin
Interview by Christopher J. Kelter
I am the de facto instrumental album reviewer for Rough Edge – this is a fact of my Rough Edge life that is fraught with frustration for the sheer amount of substandard fare that usually comes my way. It is rare that I get treated to something that is unique and rewarding – “Fossil Poets” fits in that rare category. In that respect it is a wonderful opportunity to delve into the thoughts and processes that allowed Roger Powell and Gary Tanin to create “Fossil Poets.” Read on for more information about the contributions Powell and Tanin’s provided the “Fossil Poets” project.
Rough Edge: Roger, after delving a little bit into your history I was surprised to discover that you removed yourself from the music scene for well over a decade. What was the attraction and inspiration to create new music and release it for public consumption?
Powell: Well, it was about time after 26 years between solo albums! After spending so much time as a software engineer, I really began to miss the music-making experience. So, I started developing little snippets of pieces around 2000 and finally had enough material to consider making a new album.
Rough Edge: Certainly, after hearing “Fossil Poets,” I was intrigued by the “retro-futuristic” concept that the two of you utilized to make the album. What were some of the guiding principles or rules you used to shape the album’s content and direction?
Powell: We wanted the album to have some of the flavor of the first two solo albums, “Cosmic Furnace” from 1974 and “Air Pocket” from 1980, but wanted to liven things up a bit with some more contemporary beats and such. In addition, I wanted to add some acoustic flavor here and there to balance some of the electronic edge. Having Greg Koch (what an amazing guitarist!) play on the album added a lot of personality and melody that we thought fit perfectly.
Tanin: Roger’s first two records were ‘guide posts’ for me. The real challenge was to create a record that would ‘respect’ what Roger had accomplished in the past yet provide a future tense perspective. If we hadn't accomplished that we wouldn't have had the amazing fan appreciation and critical acclaim that “Fossil Poets” has generated thus far.
Rough Edge: The rapid evolution of ideas and technology is pretty much the way things are these days – the speed of life is constantly getting crazier. It seems that the focus has always been on the future – even musicians speak of evolving and not going back into their musical pasts. The ‘retro-futuristic’ concept surely must have made the both of you try to figure out or understand your past efforts. Observations? Comments?
Powell: Interesting question, but it may be a moot point actually. We
just started carving up my original pieces and rearranging, adding, muddling things until we heard something interesting. Mostly
indefinable in musical terms in a lot of places on the album, which I think makes it somewhat unique and unpredictable. There was never a motive of “let's
make a track that sounds like X” or anything like that. It just developed organically, if you will.
Also, I think it's actually impossible for musicians to ‘keep up
with technology,’ or that it's even necessary. Traditional musical instruments
have been around a long time and don't seem to have lost their usefulness or purpose.
Tanin: To me the ‘retro’ aspect applies to the sounds used on the record like the MOOG Synthesizer and the MOTM Modular Synth. Both of those instruments provide the bedrock of the compositions on the album and are really the nod to past sonic textures associated with Roger's earlier works. The ‘futuristic’ is how these instruments were ultimately used to create a contemporary statement with “Fossil Poets,” in my opinion.
Rough Edge: What were the considerations of keeping “Fossil Poets” entirely
Powell: Just that I feel awkward both writing lyrics as well as singing. Maybe on the next one! I also feel that instrumental music can be more individually evocative than songs with lyrics. With lyrics, you are definitely guiding the listener's concepts of the music.
Tanin: Truthfully, I know how much harder it is to make an instrumental
album stand on its own. It would have been a welcome addition to fans who have come to know Roger from Utopia's favorites. I'd love to include
vocals on the next one. Melodically, the ideas that ended up on "Fossil Poets" lent themselves to vocal treatment.
Rough Edge: Gary, could you describe the first time you heard Powell’s work and the first time you worked with Powell?
Tanin: Roger and I met in fall of 1972 at a Synthesizer clinic he did at a local music store in Milwaukee. He left a copy of the brand new “Cosmic Furnace” LP. That record changed the way I listened to music forever. With the dawning of the Synthesizer age came a whole new vocabulary which Roger had been one of the creators of. I have always wanted to work on a record with him. When we finally got together for "Fossil Poets," the tracks he played me, that he had been working on, had some of that same "mystique" as I remembered “Cosmic Furnace” had. It was exciting to hear the material pieces that ultimately became "Fossil Poets" in its germination stage. Working together felt natural. We both had the kind of work ethic it would take to accomplish a project like this. In other words... it required an intense focus or it would never have been able to be completed. I had plenty of other work that would interfere with my working on Roger's record and he had a day-job at Apple. And for me, it had never really been ‘work’ to complete the record, just ‘obsession’ and trying to find the time necessary was the ‘work.’
Rough Edge: Roger, what impressed you about Gary Tanin’s skill and creative contributions to “Fossil Poets”?
Powell: I could not have done this album without Gary. Originally, I hooked up with him for his well-regarded production talents, but as the project grew, he became more involved and even added to the composition efforts. Gary did an amazing job of arranging and producing on this album, and his work with Greg Koch just added even more ‘gristle’ and spice to the album. Although we were never all three in the same room at the same time (the wonders of modern technology!), we felt that this was kind of a group trio effort. That did become a sort of guiding force for how we assembled things going forward.
Rough Edge: Roger, I am a latecomer to exploring Todd Rundgren’s work – I started to listen to some of Rundgren’s work prior to receiving “Fossil Poets” for review. Describe the impact working with Rundgren had on your musical development.
Powell: I learned so very much from Todd, not just recording techniques, but what kind of a creative attitude and workflow to pursue when making albums. Todd always emphasized the performance aspects of music, and this meant that the ‘feel’ of a musician's playing was more important than getting all the notes played sterile-perfect.
Rough Edge: Gary, “Fossil Poets” seems like a starkly different effort than “Sublime Nation.” What attracted you to the work that you and Roger developed for “Fossil Poets”?
Tanin: “Sublime Nation” used lots of the tools that Roger had developed
in the early days of computer-based compositional software. It was “Texture,” written by Powell, that gave me the early glimpse into what
would develop into my production style using both sequence-based tracks and organic instrumental tracks on records. It was actually the two
XPensive Dogs collaborations I did with Japanese composer/synthesist Toshi Hiraoka that was the original reason that Roger wanted to
consider working on a record together. Xpensive Dogs was done in a collaborative work
style just like we ultimately used to finish “Fossil Poets.” Knowing what an impact Roger's first two records had on a generation of
musicians was reason enough to want to work with the guy. Utopia records were some of my favorites. I personally wanted to hear more Roger Powell
solo releases. Having only two solo releases of Roger’s music was a sin, in my opinion.
Rough Edge: Roger, I am particularly interested in the musical experiences you had with Meat Loaf and David Bowie shaped your development in keyboards and synthesizers. How would you describe these projects and the impact it had on your style?
Powell: Well, neither of these experiences really shaped my style,
whatever that might be. Those were the early days of polyphonic synths, and I think my ‘style’ had already developed during the making of “Cosmic
Furnace” in 1973 which pre-dated working with Meat Loaf and David Bowie.
To be honest, I didn't really play that much on the Meat Loaf album, but I
did record some important keyboard overdubs that added to the production. I was lucky enough to receive one of the gold record pressings
for that album!
Rough Edge: It appears that you both asked Greg Koch to play outside his comfort zone. How did Koch’s contributions shape the final form of “Fossil Poets”?
Powell: First of all, Greg can play just about anything. But, he's usually identified with what I call the ‘Tele-Master’ style for the Fender Telecaster, bluesy and sometimes country, with touches of humor and always that technical skill! Gary produced Greg's sessions and I bet Greg did find the source material somewhat challenging here and there, as it was not in a standard song format. Nevertheless, he met the challenge with greatness, and I think he enjoyed the chance to take his phenomenal roots' chops and explore a bit. Certainly, he added a unique and compelling voice on this record.
Tanin: Comfort zone indeed! Greg is a fan of Frank Zappa. There are moments on the record that Greg sweated a bit in figuring out the changes which made it all the more exciting for him and me. We did want the contrast of ‘old’ and ‘new’ to be obvious. The use of earthy, organic guitar sounds against a modern synth/electronic backdrop was very satisfying to listen to, when we got it right. There were lots of textures and sounds that didn't work. Greg really enjoyed the challenge and was always excited to be at the next overdub session we had.
Rough Edge: In my review of “Fossil Poets” I was really relying on my first impressions to describe the disc. After having more time to digest the album I hear more of a dichotomy from the beginning of the disc to the end. The end seems more subdued than I originally remembered it. Tell me about the sequencing of the tracks on “Fossil Poets.”
Powell: That would be mostly Gary's department. I haven't said this anywhere before, but to me the album has some darkness in places, although it's meant to be revealing and in a healing nature. The "Fossil" aspect, if you will.
Tanin: The ending and the sequence from start to finish does sort of ‘evolve’ into a resolution of sorts. Certainly you get the sense of change by the time the first half of the record is over with the first piano piece “Dauphine” and the ending piece “Astrae” is a darker piece, but it resolves. The two piano pieces are very introspective so I can see how the sense of darkness may be part of that ‘sound.’ The intention was to take the listener on a journey and hopefully create contrasting emotional ride, which I think the sequence accomplishes.
Rough Edge: I like the sonic consistency on the record – I like it in the sense that it sounds like a fully realized work. Yet, I also manage to hear songs that would fit on an early Porcupine Tree album, or Joe Satriani’s “Engines of Creation” minus the guitar, or even Chroma Key’s “Graveyard Mountain Home.” Observations? Comments?
Powell: Once again, the ‘fully-realized work’ comes from working with Gary on this. Incidentally, I love all the comparisons to music I've never heard. I gotta get with the times, I guess, and check out some of this stuff.
Tanin: Thanks for the great contemporary comparisons and compliments! As a complete statement, the record evolved as a collaborative labor of love. Because I am so close to so many aspects of the recording / mixing / arranging and mastering, having someone else get the sense that the record is ‘fully realized’ reassures me that we did our jobs. It is a great compliment.
Rough Edge: As I get older I certainly have a new found appreciation for music that is more about mood and texture than showcasing sheer technical skills and abilities. As such it seems to me that it would be a lot more difficult to create an album’s worth of consistent, centered songs like “Fossil Poets” than an instrumental shredding album. Any thoughts on the big picture of getting to a point like the finished product of “Fossil Poets”?
Powell: It's funny, but I thought we did some ‘showboating’ here and there (now known as “shredding”). But we're beyond that as a cornerstone for a project. My solos are mixed down so they blend into the overall texture, for example. As I learned from Todd, it's more about the overall impact of the whole piece, not a shrine for chops.
Tanin: Ditto. It's a much more demanding to up with a record that does not have ‘solos’ for the sake of ‘solos.’ Then arrangement, melody, dynamic, texture, mood all take center stage. When you serve the composition, without concern for whether someone's ego will be bruised and work with veteran musicians that have overcome those ‘impulses’ of ‘look what I can do.’
Rough Edge: Ralph Waldo Emerson has long been one of my favorite authors. How did the inclusion of Emerson’s quote define the making of “Fossil Poets”?
Powell: Well, that's really funny. I found the quote after we picked the album title. I did a web search on "Fossil Poets" and the Emerson essay came up. Beauty!
Tanin: It was another of the many strange coincidences we found during the process of the few years we were working on this. As a matter of fact, if you go to Barnes & Nobles and go to their Listening Kiosk and type in “Fossil Poets” you'll find that Ralph Waldo Emerson is listed as one of the co-writers on the CD. We paraphrased “Language is Fossil poetry” from one of his Essays and placed that on the liner notes as a thank you!
Rough Edge: How has partnering with the Discipline Global Mobile and Inner Knot labels helped with the distribution of “Fossil Poets”?
Powell: We shopped the album looking for someone who could partner with us in the same way that the musicians had partnered together. Eventually, our contacts with Inner Knot seemed to be the right choice and we are happy to be affiliated. They are very straightforward and supportive of the artist. They are distributed through RykoDisc and Warner, so that's a great connection.
Tanin: Inner Knot/Discipline Global Mobile have been great to work with, hard working, and very much a breath of fresh air in an industry full of dishonest people.
Rough Edge: What are your future musical projects, either as collaborators or individuals?
Powell: For me, this is not nailed down as these things kind of spring up as the material grows. I would definitely like to work with the same crew again, including our illustrator Herman Serrano, on another project.
Tanin: I do look forward to working on the next "Fossil Poets" with
Roger. My day gig involves working for a record label, and producing and mastering other bands which keeps me busy. The Poets is where my heart is
Rough Edge: Thank you for your time and enthusiasm for this interview.
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