On Location: Philip Perkins in Conversation with Phillip Greenlief
When I arrived In the Bay Area in the fall of 1979, one of the most exciting bands was The Residents, a group of anonymous individuals who took it upon themselves to destroy pop music, turning tropes of the genre inside out. Their concerts were legendary happenings, typically performed by a quartet wearing tuxedos, a giant eyeball where each head should be. When covering hit songs they transformed them, a practice that evolved into themed shows utilizing cutting-edge multimedia technology.
Three decades later, I was lucky to begin working with Philip Perkins, a recording engineer who’s in constant demand for his site-specific work, whether at an outdoors dance premiere complete with competing helicopters and political protests or in an abandoned military bunker with a trio of improvising musicians. Since the mid-1970s, Perkins has recorded and collaborated with an astonishing variety of virtuosic artists, including Frederica von Stade, Zakir Hussain, the Kronos Quartet, Roscoe Mitchell, Pauline Oliveros, and Alonzo King — artists who have inspired multiple generations in the Bay Area and beyond. And, as I learned just a couple of years ago, he was recording and playing with The Residents in the years I was attending those seminal concerts (founding member H, Hardy Fox, was public about his identity after leaving The Residents in 2016, and in recent years other core members have made their identities public; in any case the very concept of “member” is a slippery thing in The Residents).
In addition to working with sound production for film with DIY independents or out at Skywalker Ranch, Perkins is a composer whose catalogue of recordings reflects his exceptional ability to create what he calls environmental observations. He tunes into the sound of the room as much as the activities that occupy it. His conception of the field recording isn’t limited to the outdoors — it can happen anywhere at any time. He teaches us how to listen by showing us what he hears.
It’s a dream to work with someone who can accurately represent your sound and it’s a lot of fun to get him to talk about some of the experiences he’s had on the job and on his own. -PG
Phillip Greenlief: There’s not enough people talking about you, as far as I’m concerned — and this could be many interviews, because you wear a lot of hats. Can you start by talking about what you’re doing right now?
Philip Perkins: I’m in the middle of a bunch of things, including some mixes of films — as a post-production mixer, sound editor. I just got through doing this run in LA for Alonzo King, this strange, post-COVID-style run, including a guest star, Tiler Peck from New York City Ballet, which ups the ante a bit. It’s at the LA Music Center on the big patio, in front of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion — outside, and distanced and everything. The charitable way to put it would be, that provided a lot of challenges to presenting contemporary ballet. And then the other thing —
PG: Well, just a minute here. What are the challenges when you’re doing something like that, like outdoors sound? Because in my experience, it rarely works.
PP: It’s not just the sound, it’s the whole gestalt of dance — and maybe it’s conditioning, we’re used to seeing it in this very pure environment where it’s just the stage, the rest of the hall is relatively dark, and there isn’t a lot of distraction.
Now we’re outside, there’s the sky, there’s all these other buildings, there’s unbelievable numbers of LAPD helicopters all the time, because it’s not very far from City Hall. Big political protests and motorcycles and buses and people in need of help kind of yelling randomly, you know, because it’s downtown LA. You don’t have the magic of the stage and stage lighting, and there’s nothing to contain the sound, so all you’re listening to are these speakers blasting directly at you. And Lines uses, for this particular show, a really broad range of music, everything from super close-up tabla to piano to classical music to acapella vocals that were meant to be sung in a highly reverberant space. And you’re getting nothing from the environment at all. So we got there, but it was a little painful.
alonish (2020, unreleased)
PG: But the end result sounds like a Phil Perkins piece.
PP: Well, I don’t know about that — it’s supposed to sound like an Alonzo King piece.
PG: Yeah, but my point being, in both your own compositions and in the recording work you do for others, you engage in a kind of environmental archiving.
PP: Observation. All musicians do this — you notice something going on sonically that other people might be aware of, but they don’t focus on it, and you go, what’s that? You’re able to mentally isolate it within the general sonic environment. The dance piece was more like, just trying to make the whole thing work together and not have you notice, “Oh wow, that note sounded really harsh.”
The other thing I’m in the middle of is a feature film of a new opera by Gordon Getty. It was shot partly in New York, and the rest of it’s going to be shot here. It’s very beautiful, in the modern classical way, really interesting orchestration, really good singers. And we’re shooting it on an enormous set in one of the hangers on Treasure Island, a 360 set.
PG: And that was the intention?
PP: I think it was originally intended to be premiered a little over a year ago, as a live opera; they were all teed up to do that when they got shut down by Covid, and then they got the idea, “We should actually make this a movie,” and for director they got Brian Staufenbiel, from Opera Parallèle; he’s kind of the what-else-can-we-do-with-opera? person. So this is very much in his wheelhouse, using all the resources of cinema to move the camera around and modern theater in terms of projections and not hiding the fact that that’s a projection or that’s a set, or this person is wearing a period costume and they’re singing directly to you and the camera. My title is music supervisor, because this is an opera where we’re working to measure numbers. The score is as big as a phone book. So we’re jumping all around, and it’s partly technical, it’s partly clerical, and as in a lot of theatrical productions, the timecode, click, and audio that I’m playing is the thing that everyone is following. All the projection, the lighting, things like that.
When they first asked me I didn’t know if I wanted to do it because I wasn’t going to get to record music. The music was recorded at Skywalker. And then I thought, this is a really interesting part of this world that I’ve never been in before. I think it’s probably a fluke in my life, so I’m trying to learn the most I can from it. I don’t see this as the kind of thing that comes along very often in the Bay Area. And when it does it happens in the big arts organizations, and that kind of work is not available to somebody like me.
PG: So that’s what’s going on as of today. [laughter]
PP: It’s not really different, mentally, than trying to do your octet piece at the David Ireland house, where it’s just like, “OK, here we have a situation, and the brief contains a number of conditions that have to be met for this to happen.” And some of the conditions seem pre-emptive, but then you go, “How can we get around that?” So we did! Both of these projects I just described, the Lines in LA and the opera, are like that. They’re very interesting technical, aesthetic puzzles.
Photos: Pamela Z.. From Phillip Greenlief’s Bellingham for David Ireland, David Ireland House 2017.
PG: Problem-solving, yeah. And that’s why you get hired, because they know you can solve these problems.
PP: As with Lines, I repeatedly said at the beginning, “You know, I have really no idea how to do this.” Basically, I think as long as they didn’t have to do it, they didn’t care. “Yeah, you figure it out.”
PG: You’ve worked with Lines for fifteen years?
PP: Ten. Fortieth season next year for them. Lines asked for my help with the live sound for the ballet Constellation in 2012. I had never spent time around high-level contemporary ballet dancing, especially at close range, and it blew my mind — the juxtaposition of the concrete and the abstract that the dancers do all day every day. So I basically just didn’t leave, and started finding various things I could do for them, not just sound tasks. I’m still doing that.
PG: Wow, amazing. You know, the one question that I’ve wanted to ask you for a long time in the context of what we’re talking about, being presented with problems that are not easy to solve: what’s the most unusual thing that someone’s ever said, “Well, can you do this?”
PP: One of them that was unusual was the octet. [laughter] I’d done a bunch of records with you already, so I knew pretty much what you were going to do, and I knew most of the musicians. It was one of those things where it’d be really easy just to say, “We can’t do this.”
PG: “This” being record an ensemble work that has each musician stationed in a different room, with a live audience moving through the space.
PP: And the entire building is a work of art. Every square inch of the ceiling, floor, everything in it. And there’s safety concerns. Things like cables on the floor. We didn’t want to go wireless either, because we didn’t want to put everybody’s instrument through wireless mics. So that was one of the cooler solutions I’ve come up with, I think. I have a relatively short memory — people say, “Didn’t you work on that?” “Oh that’s right, I did work on that.”
I’m not really a recording studio person, or only very rarely. My work seems to be, record the musicians where they want to be, with the idea that the location changes the musicians’ relationship to their music. A studio is one thing, it’s very concentrated. Now I’m in this environment, and what does that do to me/us, and can we capture that well enough that that might be a publishable version of their music.
PG: That’s exactly why I like working with you, because I don’t like being in recording studios.
PP: Well, it’s great for a certain kind of thing. I miss it.
PG: Yeah, just not the kind of music I play.
PP: Maybe a studio’s easier if you’re trying to read a gnarly score, and you’re going to do a bunch of punching in. Like, these people who are recording music for the opera movie, that would be really hard to do on location. But a lot of the people for whom I record, musicians like yourself who play charts, are also very much in the moment, they’re improvisers — taking that kind of energy, and parking it in a new environment, produces really interesting results, in terms of the interaction with the environment.
PG: Absolutely. As a solo performer or an ensemble performer, it doesn’t matter: improvising is about playing the room. It’s really one of the most important instruments in the mix.
PP: Larry Ochs, Dave Rempis, and Darren Johnston wanted to record in one of those Mare Island Navy bunkers. You know, that’s an interesting challenge; there’s no power out there, and only a certain sort of very accomplished, experienced, and confident player would subject their music to what happens to it in such a singular acoustic space, and figure that the space might show them some new aspects of their music. I think that’s what happened for Larry, Dave, and Darren on Empty Castles. I hope so.
Or take a jazz ensemble like your Lost Trio, what happens when we put them in that room at the —?
PG: Waldorf School.
PP: — that room has a really positive effect on the music, because of how it was designed and the light and air and what the musicians could see out the window while they’re playing, things like that. I’ve had it go the other way, where I thought that the environment was not good for the music, it was oppressive. But most of the time, that doesn’t happen.
PG: I want to spend some time on your work as a sound artist or composer. First with Choral Works and then The Apsaras.
PP: Choral Works was recorded all over the place. These were mostly pieces made out of discovered, stolen, borrowed chunks of people singing, from years when I was traveling more.
And The Apsaras is all from Cambodia. An apsara is when in Cambodian temple art, you see all these beautiful maidens, and they represent stars, like a constellation. The pieces are miniature audio melodies. I had gone to Cambodia and had been very, very affected by it. I designed a very large and very pretentious piece that I realized was never going to be realized, or if I did it would suck. So I ended up making all these tiny pieces instead based on what I had found there. I was reminded of this field of dancing women and I thought, all these little pieces together give you some kind of a picture of what I heard.
PG: And so constellation ends up being a really good word for a conceptual piece.
PP: Well, a piece in which no part is more important than any other. It’s a field of pieces. Choral Works is a much more conventional sound piece put together in a studio.
Hall of Flowers (1987 cassette, 1988 LP) is a 21 min. musical sound work designed for radio broadcast, either as “foreground,” i.e., a featured presentation, or as “background” behind whatever the DJ wants to mix with it. Users of the work are encouraged to drop in and out of the piece wherever they please, without necessarily always starting it from the beginning. Materials include early primitive 8-bit instrument samples, found, recorded and stolen noises, ambiances, and borrowed music.
PG: I’m going to switch to Hall of Flowers. That piece is also a layering — do you call that music concrete, or? You’ve recorded a variety of things, and you’re mixing them, and —
PP: I’m not educated enough to apply labels so that everybody else would know what they meant. Sound art is what people call it.
PG: Were you playing what sounds like a keyboard in there?
PP: Hall of Flowers is an Emulator One, the very first sampler that could be afforded by middle class people — certainly not by artists, they were still very expensive — that I had bought cheap from The Residents after the end of the Mole tour. They sold one of the two they had bought for that show. They had the third and fourth ones that were ever sold.
PG: Yeah, I was looking at some video of one of The Mole Shows from Germany. It was radical: instead of a band on stage, it was people in costume sitting behind three keyboards.
PP: H and Homer have Emulators and I have a Moog and Tom has a Roland Jupiter 8 [an ‘80s keyboard synth]. I got one of the Emulators, the four-voice one. The thing ran on floppy disks; if you sent in a floppy disk and told it to take it while it was playing its sequencer, so it’s playing it by itself, it would struggle to combine the previous sound with the new one. And so what you’re hearing is these layers of me swapping disks as fast as I possibly can, and how the sound would break up as it changed from one sound to another. And then I found some other sounds, like that stretch of Samuel Barber, which served as the glue for that section, of all the stuff going in and out, as well as shaping it for length. That was a piece that was absolutely on purpose made for radio. And when we sent it out — of course, in those days, in the ‘80s, we were sending out cassettes — we said, “Look, don’t worry about starting it at the beginning. Just start it wherever it is, play it for as long as you want, and then fade it out. And if you ever want to play it again, just start wherever you were.” A couple of DJs wrote me back and said they ended up leaving it on the console of their station, and they would go to it whenever they wanted to talk. And I said, “Absolutely, use this as a background for announcements, use it in any radio fashion.” So that was a success, I thought. The only thing they complained about was that it was a cassette, so I had to go back and make it into an LP. Because LPs were so much easier for them to deal with on the air.
PG: Perhaps this question’s just too pedestrian, but; was some of that ambient found sound recorded in the Hall of Flowers, when I’m hearing people talking?
PP: No — maybe? I found the name of this building in Golden Gate Park evocative, imagining what the interior would sound like when full of people and other sounds. The idea was that in the Hall of Flowers you have this huge array of individual little moments of beauty and you focus on them, and then you focus on something else — I put the people in, because the Hall of Flowers would have people in it. It’s a reverberant space where you know you are hearing human voices, but you mostly can’t understand what they’re saying.
PG: There seemed to me a wonderful complexity in the layering of — not what you would call found sound, but musical sound. And maybe as a result, a rhythmic complexity that was very exciting to listen to.
PP: Yeah, and some of those are sampler glitches, actually. [laughter] And then that would become the structure, kind of on its own. Yeah, that’s I think one of the most successful things that I’ve made — when somebody asks for something, I often give them that, still.
PG: It’s a fabulous piece. I’m just listening to it and thinking that your name should be in discussions with Luc Ferrari and Maryanne Amacher and Robert Ashley and these folks. You know? Pioneering electronic musicians. You’ve done a lot of really super work.
PP: Well, I’ve made an absurd number of albums. But that’s because I’ve really never been that much of a live performer, so that was the only way to get anything out.
PG: Yeah, I was wondering about that. I mean, it calls on your talent, which is to capture something — that word’s loaded. I was using documentation earlier — or archiving, and you’re saying observing.
arupnun from The Apsaras, 2002.
PP: An archive is meant to be researched, and it’s catalogued. I can’t even remember what’s in my piece, or where it came from or when I recorded it, and I don’t know where the sources are anymore. Scott Fraser and I anyways, as The Bifurcators, were bemoaning the other day that our big piece that we did with the late “Blue” Gene Tyranny — we have no idea how we did that, and we could never recreate it. [The Bifurcators are/were an intermittently active “band” from 1973-2008 that put out two albums on Artifact, Gang of 2 and Like a Bird in the Wilderness. “Blue” Gene Tyranny (1945-2020) was a highly influential composer, band leader, teacher, and piano virtuoso whose work was foundational to Robert Ashley and several other composers; he mentored and collaborated with a galaxy of late twentieth and early twenty-first century musicians and artists.]
PG: Which one is that?
PP: It’s called Like a Bird in the Wilderness.
PG: Wow, I don’t know that I know that one.
PP: Yeah, it’s one with him soloing over this enormous — for that day, not enormous anymore — max patcher triggering a bunch of MIDI instruments in accordance with performance algorithms we came up with that mostly involved listening to and then (very primitively) being affected by what “Blue” was playing (or not playing) at any given moment.
PG: You mentioned The Residents a minute ago—how did you begin working with them?
PP: In 1978 I was on the board of Canyon Cinema, the experimental film co-op. Canyon was the distributor of the one film The Residents had completed then, Land of 1000 Dances. They needed help shooting some much more ambitious film projects they had in mind, so they called Canyon looking for someone to help them. I happened to be there when they called, and the person who talked to them told me to go down to 444 Grove St. SF and see what I could do. So I did. I had never heard of them at that point!
PG: I’ve always wondered how y’all went about doing things pre-Pro Tools. It seems like, what could have happened was you rehearsed a lot and figured some things out, and then went about recording it, and in those days you would have been cutting and splicing tape together, using the tape recorder as part of the compositional process. Or were you recording fragments and saying, “Oh, this could go here.” Was it the chicken or the egg? What was the process of putting some of that music together?
PP: I wasn’t around for a lot of the most famous things that they did, so I don’t know exactly how they did it. I mean, I know what the tools were, and I have a general idea of what the technique was. But Hardy Fox was a studio genius, and quite meticulous recording engineer. I remember he would work things out with a cassette recorder sitting on an upright piano in his apartment. Because that’s all you could do then. And they would just work on stuff forever.
PG: So he’s sitting at the piano with a cassette player, just grabbing ideas. And he generates enough material to say, “OK, here’s something we can shape.” And then it’s about —?
PP: And then it’s about them working it out with the lyrics that they would come up with. I think in terms of chicken and egg, it went both ways. My experience with them was mostly taking what they had already done and trying to figure out how to play it live. And then play it live on tour.
PG: Right, so I know you were collaborating with them on Assorted Secrets [a compilation of rehearsal and test tapes, released on cassette in 1984].
PP: Assorted Secrets is almost unique. That’s actually The Residents being a garage band. [laughter] And they don’t like that album at all. They would like that album to disappear.
PP: Yeah, it’s very not in their studio perfectionist vein, and I never could figure out why they allowed it to be released. Because those are rehearsals for a show that never happened. Frankly, what happened is that this group of people [who was or was not a “Resident” at any given moment back then was a highly fluid concept] tried to recreate their records, and in my opinion failed miserably, and then around the time that we realized — or I realized, anyway — that we weren’t doing a very good job on this music, and that their fans were not going to like this, because it didn’t have any of the sophistication of the album versions, then they decided that they wanted to tour The Mole Show instead. Which was even harder. But, exactly at the right moment, those first digital audio samplers came along, and suddenly sounds that they had made in the studio could be taken on the road. This was pre-MIDI, so we had the usual stack of keyboards. You had to play everything live. But with the sampler, Hardy was able to figure out how to do a lot of the things that he had done on the albums. That was the only time I ever saw them excited about a piece of equipment.
PG: That makes perfect sense. I was trying to remember, when did The Mole Show happen? And what tools did they have at their disposal? The Emulator, if I’m not wrong, arrives in 1981, and The Mole Show is 1982.
PP: Starts in ’82. The tour was in ’83. I remember going in one day to their place on Grove Street, and Hardy showing me a double page ad, a picture of the E-One keyboard — this clunky-looking keyboard that looks like sort of a stripped-down Fender Rhodes, and there’s a microphone plugged into it. And you don’t need to say anything else, we all went, “Whoa, you mean you can play what you record?” So yeah, that was tremendously exciting. That’s what enabled them to think that they could actually play it live well enough that their fans wouldn’t hate them for touring it. They were profoundly unreliable on the road, but —
PG: The Emulator?
PP: Oh yeah, it was like this sea of chips. Every day you open it up, you wiggle every one of the chips to make sure it was actually seated after it had been on the truck.
The Residents were really good at using the tools of a mid-level recording studio of that period to their fullest possibilities, track bouncing and track comping on a 16-track machine —
PG: Can you explain what track comping is?
PP: You do a bunch of tracks, fill the machine up, and mix them down to another track, so as to open up new tracks. The British call it tape reductions; The Beatles are one famous example of many groups doing this, trying to get more tracks out of a 2- or 4-track recorder before machines with 8, 16, 24, and beyond were available. You have to be clever about what you do first, because what’s going to get buried in the background. The Residents were really good at that kind of thing, and they picked really interesting sounds. You mentioned The Mole Show, the coming of samplers. There’s a percussion instrument in a bunch of places in that music, and what it actually is, is that Homer and I tied string to the plenum of his furnace and he plucked it like a bass. But now in the keyboard, in the sampler, you could pitch that up and down in a well-tempered scale. Or another one was, I had one of those old Thomas Cara espresso machines that they used to sell in North Beach: you put a little bit of water in it, tilt it forward, and it would make this rhythmic glugging noise. You could push a mic inside the machine, grab that, and then you could slow it down.
PG: You sampled that?
PP: Yeah. [Laughter] There were a whole bunch of things like that that we sampled, or recorded and edited down, and then you’d go through this tedious process of trying to sample it at the right moment, because you couldn’t edit on these early samplers at all. And the entire machine could only remember two seconds’ worth of sound. You had to be very judicious about what you picked; very short sounds that could “loop” well worked best. In some cases, in that show, we had eight voices playing in a sequencer. OK, that’s not a lot of sonic territory. But we could take a single sound and make it into a chord, on the sampler.
PG: And if there’s two Emulators, then there’s sixteen voices —
PP: No, one was eight voices and one was only four. Because they were so expensive. They were eleven or twelve thousand dollars in 1981 dollars.
PG: Yeah, that’s a lot of money for a musical instrument.
PP: Now, not a lot of money compared to a Fairlight, but this was the next thing — to use this was like, beyond high tech.
PG: So, we’ve been talking about listening, about paying attention — and you also worked with Pauline [Oliveros, a pioneering composer who worked with improvisation and electronic music].
PP: The last thing I did was an album called Music in The Air that she did with Chris Brown. And we recorded it at Maybeck Hall, which is this beautiful, inspiring space to be in. I was really flattered to be asked to record it. Pauline would set herself up with what I referred to as the Pauline-izer, which was her very complex computer audio recording and processing patch. A lot of things on her screen would be spinning around, and she’d be looking at it while she was playing her super bossed-out accordion with built-in B and K microphones or whatever they were.
PG: And her accordion is tuned to just intonation. [An intonation practice considered outdated in the early 1700s with the invention of equal temperament, a tuning system that allowed an instrument like a piano to play in tune in all twelve keys.] She told me that she would send her accordion to the fellow in Italy who built it whenever it needed to be tuned.
PP: Right. And then Chris was using the piano and I think his electronics, listening to the piano. We would go around [laughs] — fortunately the owner wasn’t there — the parts of the house we could get to, and we’d bring things back to Pauline for her to sample. She would pick up — not quite a drum stick, some kind of a beater — and she’d hit it: “Oh, that’s interesting.” She had a very expensive microphone, so she’d sample the ones that she liked, and that would become what she would use in the next piece that we would record, and then we would move on, and then she would never use that again. In fact, I think she might have erased that. This was like, the process. What I’m doing right now. Here’s a pan lid, bing. That’s good. Here’s the pan. Oh, that’s interesting, great. A couple more things. OK, here we go. Done, stop the tape, stop recording. Erase it. Erase the memory, find new things. It’s not that she didn’t take it seriously, she just wasn’t going to get bogged down, and her preparation was all in — besides her own musicality and her own musical ideas — her instrument and how it would deal with this, and how she would interact with it with her accordion. Somebody should have made a documentary; it was very matter-of-fact, and one of the most interesting recording sessions that I’ve ever worked on.
PG: This is a composer, an improvisor, a person who’s developed theories about listening that have influenced a lot of people. What did you get from working with her?
PP: You know, nothing got by her, sonically, which you would expect. And she was never precious about anything. It was, “This is just what we play right now, and then we’re going to play something else, because now has now moved on.” She was always moving forward, into new sonic and musical territory. I never was quite sure why they wanted to do this album, because it didn’t seem like recording was really that important to her by that time; playing was super important. It was like, we’re going to play and we’re going to happen to invite this guy to come and record it. It was not any more important than that, and then they put it out as a little addition on Deep Listening. In that way I thought, well maybe she just thinks of this as a report on what she’d been doing, and someone I played with at a moment in time. But the important thing seemed to her, was the playing of it with Chris. And no audience!
PG: Your comment about nothing being precious reminds me of Braxton saying I’m not interested in golden moments. I’m not striving for that.
PP: Or the irony of like, Laeticia Sonami, who is a professional recording engineer, being utterly uninterested in recording her music. [laughs] I worked on a film about her, and in it she says, “Why would I care about that?”
PG: You mentioned “Blue” Gene Tyranny a minute ago, and I know you were just involved with trying to come up with archiving his box set.
PP: Oh, that was such an honor to do.
PG: But also daunting.
PP: Well, it was hard, yeah. Because the tracks were a mess. They go back into the ’50s. This is the Unseen World release called Degrees of Freedom Found, a six-CD set. I produced five of them, and the five that I produced are the gnarly ones. [Laughter]
PG: He’s also interested in layers that most people would never think to put together.
PP: The next thing that I think that Tommy [McCutchon] from Unseen Worlds is going to put out, is to re-release Real Life and the Movies, the album that “Blue” Gene did on our label, Fun Music, in ’81. And that’s way more experimental. It goes back to Ann Arbor and the piece that he did on a mainframe computer and his experimental film soundtracks.
PG: Whoa whoa whoa. What year are we talking?
PP: Very early ’60s, ONCE Festival years, things like that. The box set is him as a bandleader. A lot of them are board tapes [stereo or mono recordings made off an output of a PA board at a live show, usually just intended as documentation for the artists]. So there were a lot of expected technical problems. And two crown jewels: one is the complete, The Driver’s Son, it’s like an oratorio almost. It’s spoken and sung music. And he gives you a couple of versions of it, from different concerts, with different people singing it — very interesting. And then the other one is Songs from Aphasia, which was very properly done, recorded in New York with professional musicians, and it’s unbelievably beautiful. It was important to us that the No. 1 producer of the set be “Blue” himself. This supervision of our labors on his box set was the last major thing he completed; we got him to do this just in time, before his faculties began to fail. He chose what went on what CD and in what order. And you know, a lot of us didn’t agree with his choices, but this is what he wanted. We all felt very honored to do it.
PG: Wow. How did you create Cascando, your soundscore for the Beckett radio play?
PP: We just did it as a bunch of yahoo students, and I played an electric guitar and instead of fingering it, I used glass. Got a lot of feedback. I was the “Music” character.
PG: Boy, I wish I could hear that.
PP: We didn’t record it. It barely happened as it was. If I had been smart I would have done more stuff like that. I really liked working with theater.
PG: Yeah, it’s really exciting. There’s been times when I’ve been asked to make a recording to go with live theater and I’m always like, could I just be in the room with the actors? Because something exciting’s gonna happen.
PP: This is a thing that we get to do with Lines all the time — the difference between having musicians who are in the room following, working with the dancers, as opposed to, you hit play and you have to hit all the cues. It’s a whole lot easier to tour that, but it’s just never the same kind of experience at all.
PG: It could be different every time. Which is the reward to the audience. You’re going to experience something that no one else is ever going to experience.
PP: And people pick up on that. Yes, it’s whatever it is, the title, but that version is never going to be like that again. In my role I often get a lot of resistance to that. Because it introduces a level of unpredictability that a lot of people don’t like. People who are responsible for making the show actually happen every night and have it be good. And take it on the road. And then you’re into the usual tour economics.
PG: Do you like touring?
PP: It’s always very rewarding and it just kills me. [laughs] It’s so hard.
PG: It is.
PP: I’m a nervous wreck all the time. I’m always sure I’m going to be late to the theater. And so I’m always early, and that kind of thing. You know, what I like to tell people at Lines, is I really wish I had discovered this whole thing when I was thirty instead of when I was sixty.
PG: Was touring with The Mole Show difficult?
PP: Very. We made it hard, because we didn’t know shit. I mean, we built a show to do one run at the old Kabuki in San Francisco when it was still an opera house, a huge venue with a big stage. Then someone said, “OK now you have to tour it.” So we had to figure out a way to get it to England, and then from England to Europe, around Europe, and back to England. We never did quite get it all back to the United States — the true cost of air freight was grossly underestimated and it all got impounded for non-payment; much of the set and props were trashed in order to stop paying storage fees for them. And the people that got hired to help us tour it, the British roadies, did not understand what we were doing. To them it was just so wet, so arty and not rock ‘n’ roll, and you know, they were used to being provided with drugs and alcohol by the production company, and we weren’t drug users or even drinkers to any degree, especially compared to them — and on and on. But most of it was due to our extreme inexperience.
PG: They had made a real turn with The Mole Show.
PP: Well yeah, after that they became quite good at touring. But I wasn’t part of that. No, I just did the first one that was the rolling disaster. Years later, I talked to Homer and said, “On my list of things that I wish I could do over again in my life, the Mole tour is near the top.” And he said, “Me too.”
PG: So going backwards, when did you arrive in the Bay Area?
PP: November 7th, 1977.
PG: Wow, yeah. A lot of people get really tired of hearing how great it was —
PP: It was great because it was nowhere. The ’60s were over, the tech thing hadn’t started yet, the real estate hadn’t taken off, it was just another city in California. But it was this weird, quirky city that had a tolerance for arty, strange people, and it didn’t cost a billion dollars to live in.
PG: It was cheap.
PP: Well it wasn’t cheap compared to where I lived in Oregon. But for California, compared to New York, it was cheap in those days.
PG: Yes, I went from paying 68 dollars a month to, you know, 140 dollars. It was more expensive, but come on: 140 dollars a month — you could do it! But I also want to push up against this nostalgia crap. There are still amazing things happening now.
PP: Oh, there are truly amazing things. Yeah, I was, like you, very lucky that I could get here at a certain time, when a lot of things were much easier, compared to what a young artist is up against now. Still, there was always the situation that there was no use being here if you didn’t want to be here; you needed to want to be here. But that’s true of any major city. And at the same time, you were just talking about The Residents and their recording technique. OK, you could do everything they were doing times ten on your laptop now. At Starbucks — with a set of headphones. So there are some compensations.
All that early work that I did, from like 1975-1987, was made almost entirely with junk-level audio and musical equipment; you had this pile of crap that maybe you’d gotten at pawnshops or Goodwill, and you tried to figure out, what was the one thing that you could do with it that might work? OK, today you have the exact opposite problem: you can do so much, so fast, with digital technology, but what is worth doing? That’s actually a harder question.
PG: Yeah, which is why I think I move slowly, sometimes, when I’m writing music and using traditional notation. Everyone wants to talk about these software programs that make it easier, so to speak, to compose music, but not every idea you come up with and feed into your Pro Tools session is an idea that should be on the page.
PP: The other thing is that they channel you to make a certain kind of thing. One time I got a demo version of Ableton, which I don’t know very much about, and in about five minutes, I had something going on, and I thought, well that sounds like bad commercial music. Which isn’t to say that if you can internalize it that it’s not a great tool, but at least for somebody with my background, you need to be on your guard. I hear stuff all the time where it’s like, OK you took the easy way out. For a lot of that kind of music, whoever built that compositional tool did a much more interesting thing than what you’re doing with it.
PG: You can go to college to learn to be a recording engineer now. And you couldn’t do that, right, when we were young. How did you get started, and what is your advice to young people getting into these programs?
PP: When Scott Fraser and I still lived in Oregon, where we met, we were associated with a group of artists interested in filmmaking, photography, video, intermedia, etc. As you would expect, all of us were visual artists except Scott, who was the sole sound-oriented person in the group. When Scott moved to LA, the rest of the group decided since Scott was my close friend and collaborator, that meant that I should somehow become “their sound man” now. So I did that. Thus the years of pawn-shop gear and terrible mistakes as I acquired some experience…
My only advice is what I did: you just gotta do it. And nowadays, I just think there’s no fucking excuse. You can buy really decent-sounding stuff off Craigslist — so get to work, already. If you’re interested in making technology-based sound art, have at it. There’s nothing wrong with Garage Band and it’s free. You know? Then if you decide that it actually is interesting to you and you’re getting somewhere, well then maybe if you really want to and you want access to that equipment, you can think about going to another school. The idea that you would start out there actually knowing nothing, or very little, is crazy: you’re spending all this money for stuff that you could have done by yourself on the web, just looking at tutorials. I mean, I have to learn new things all the time. During COVID I started doing video editing, mostly for Lines, which I had never done before. That was just a bunch of looking at tutorials. “How do I do …?” I’ve made all kinds of terrible mistakes, you know, even at ages where I should have known better. And you only get there by doing. Ultimately people want to know what you’ve done, not what you’ve studied.
PG: “Do the work” is the phrase I use most with students.
PP: That’s my equivalent of you practicing your instrument: what do all these things do? What happens to the sound when I use them? Doing something like that every day. I know you’re practicing up to the day we’re going to actually go someplace and record. Meanwhile, I’m prepping and I’m choosing microphones and that kind of stuff. That’s my practice as an engineer. In my own work, it’s the opposite: the less I think about the actual making of the piece, the better it turns out. I think of my albums now as being the audio equivalent of action painting. Where it’s like, we’re in this moment right now, and either it works or it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t work, out it goes.
PG: It sounds like an echo of the Pauline experience you had.
PP: Except that Pauline could have certainly made a composition if she wanted to. And I don’t know what her mental process was, I would not pretend that I could understand it. But for me, it’s very much like I’m trying to connect directly to my current emotion. I used to even make rules for myself that I could only use sounds from the last 72 or 96 hours; you have to keep grinding on it, and sometimes something happens and most of the time, nothing happens and it’s junk. But once in a while, something interesting happens that’s worth playing for someone else.
PG: Beautiful. Well, there it is, folks; do the work. You’ve worked quite a bit with Zakir [Hussain, a virtuoso tabla player in the Indian classical tradition]. Was that all with Lines?
PP: Three times, I think? Yeah, it was all with Lines. He has his own people for recording. They’re mostly in Bombay.
PG: I took tabla, a course, at Ali Akbar when I first got here, because I felt like my rhythm was terrible —
PP: Everybody’s rhythm is terrible compared to his.
PG: Geez. I just wanted to say, it seems like certain instruments, like the tabla, would be hard to record or get sound dialed in.
PP: Well the advantage for me is that Zakir is going to tell me exactly how he wants me to record it. He’s going to tell me what microphones he’ll accept. I’m going to put them all on stands, and their final positions will be done by him. And it’s like, what, I’m going to argue with him? As you know as a player, a recording is actually 75 percent in the playing and the instrument. With a player like him, and the people who he brings with him to play with, I just try not to screw up, you know?
febo3nf (2021, unreleased)
PG: What is the hardest instrument you’ve ever tried to record?
PP: Pianos. Pianos in a live setting. For instance, a very favorite musician of Alonzo King is Jason Moran. Jason Moran plays a grande mega Steinway that we rent for him — but it’s gonna be in a live situation, he might have a trio that includes a drummer that has cymbals. They’re in the pit, which is basically this walled little room, so everything’s bouncing around. And the dancers are jumping around on the stage. I’m trying to get something that would be clean enough to be tourable. So I’ve got to be able to clean it up. That means the microphones have to be much closer to the piano than you would have them in a classical recording, which then means that the piano has to be much more pristine — every day the piano tuner and I will be squeak hunting: “OK this note, this note. One of the strings is making an odd harmonic” —that kind of thing. Especially in the zone of the piano where there’s three strings for every note. And when you’re in that close, how do you get a balanced sound and have a feeling for the scale of a nine-foot piano? It’s kind of like taking a rock ‘n’ roll guitar lead: everybody knows what that’s supposed to sound like, so you’re very exposed. Whereas, something that’s a more experimental instrument, nobody knows what it’s supposed to sound like, so it sounds like however you make it. That’s probably what I would say. That and massed voices can be very hard, because of the inter-mod harmonics between the voices.
And again, I almost am always recording in situations that are not like studios, that are disadvantageous to sound. I’m having to be in closer, but I don’t want it to sound like it’s closer. That comes from my background in movies — movie sets are actually terrible places to record somebody talking. But you’ve got to make it sound natural somehow. So that forms the way that I do music.
PG: Especially on location.
PP: Which it always is, for me.