January 5th, 2009 | Interviews

shea M gauer

L.A. RECORD, the L.A. Film Forum and Cinefamily will begin a month-long series of musicians doing live scores to silent films with guitarists Tom Verlaine (Television) and Jimmy Rip (Tom Verlaine, Mick Jagger) who will be reprising their Music For Experimental Films project by soundtracking avant-garde films by Man Ray, Fernand Leger, Hans Richter and more. Tom Verlaine interview by Chris Ziegler and Jimmy Rip interview by Nolan Knight.

Are you still on the midnight-to-six practice schedule?
Tom Verlaine: It’s not quite midnight to six! More like eight to one or show. Midnight to six your time!
Jimmy Rip said the idea of making music for images—which is what he says the film project breaks down to—came from playing in front of the TV as a child. Is that something you ever used to do?
TV: No—I don’t even own a TV. I haven’t had a TV since—I had a TV for one year of twenty years, maybe.
How do you get your misinformation?
TV: I don’t know—maybe Internet?
Were there any particular films that struck you as a child and still stick with you?
TV: There’s one—The Red House. It was a bizarre kind of murder-mystery-thriller with Edward G. Robinson. I think it’s early or mid-forties. In the end, this guy is walking across a floor or something, and the floor turns out—it’s a bunch of rotten boards over an old well, and he falls in and drowns. The evil guy. Who I think was Edward G. Robinson.
He had great demises.
TV: He might have been in a car that went into the well, and you see the car filling up with water, and you see his face in the back window. Some weird film like that!
How old were you?
TV: I don’t even know. Probably before the age of eight.
What kind of early media diet did you have?
TV: I didn’t have any because I didn’t like watching TV as a kid! I liked like jumping around in the woods. I don’t know any kid now that does any of the stuff I did when I was a kid. They don’t seem to have any woods to play in.
Maybe they go to
TV: Maybe. Maybe if you live up in smaller towns in the northeast or even in like Arkansas—Arkansas has a lot of forests. But I don’t know what kids even do any more.
Do you remember the first movie you saw when you first came to New York? Like when you stay up all night in the theater because you have nowhere else to go?
TV: I know I saw El Topo. And I can also tell you that I either fell asleep or left early. I just had no feeling for this film at all. I thought it was just really stupid. I don’t know if that’s the first one though. Probably close.
How did you settle on the films for the DVD?
TV: I’d say I watched about twenty. A lot of them were too long right away so I didn’t even finish watching them.
What’s your cut-off?
TV: Like seven minutes, and even then I prefer doing shorter ones. That might have something to do with watching cartoons as a kid.
Why did you pick the films you picked?
TV: I wanted a variety. It was nice to have a little horror film in there. And the oddball—you know, some of those films were made in a person’s kitchen with like miniatures. The Hollywood Actor film was made in a guy’s apartment. Actually, I take it back—there were a few outdoor shots, where you see a guy on some stairs, and some newsreel stuff that he pinched. But most of the weird stuff you see in that was a guy’s kitchen. Some of it’s models—when he’s rising up to heaven at the end, it’s little toy models on the kitchen table with weird lighting.
Did you know anything about the films before you sat down to watch them?
TV: Only the Man Ray one.
Were there any that didn’t make it on the DVD but you could still play along to?
TV: No because I didn’t really try underneath them unless I knew what I wanted to do. So it wasn’t like giving up—some of them I wanted to do right away, and if I didn’t wanna do them I didn’t try to do the music on them.
What happened to these films during their life time? Where were they supposed to end up?
TV: I have no idea. It wasn’t expensive to make these films back then, so it wasn’t like anybody had to try to market them or make any money back. They probably got played in very small theaters mostly in France is my guess.
Emak Bakia caused a riot at an early screening—what’s the most visceral response you’ve had?
TV: Nothing like that. We’ve mostly done this in screening rooms at museums because the audience for it is so tiny. But we did do a couple film festivals with it. We did a very big theater in San Francisco that sold out—that was the largest audience we ever had for it. At least 1,200 people. Which was really amazing.
Do you still play from the front row?
TV: Yeah—there’s no performance. You don’t even see us. We’re like the piano player down in the pit, you know?
Ballet Mecanique was originally written for airplane propellers—
TV: Airplane propellers and a siren! I actually heard that when I was a kid. There’s a mono recording of that on Columbia from like the late fifties. I actually had that original thing when I was a kid.
How did that end up in your house? And how did Columbia put that out?
TV: Because they had a modern music series. And when hi-fi started becoming this thing where people thought, ‘Oh, here’s the real sound,’ most of the labels wanted to have a really amazing percussion record because percussion is very hard to record and it tests your system. I think there’s also three grand pianos at times. It’s a real action-filled score. When you see that film, it really lends itself to basically rhythmic playing.
Is The Music From The Twilight Zone one of your favorite LPs?
TV: That’s another record I had as a kid. But it’s not the actual soundtrack. It’s a record by a guy called Marty Manning and his orchestra. I guess no one had ever put the theme out so he recorded it. He did a really good version of it. In fact, in many ways, it’s better than the one you hear on the DVDs. This is another really cool record. It shows up on bootlegs. Nobody can figure out where these are coming from. A friend of mine’s got a bootleg—really heavy vinyl. We’re theorizing they’re coming from Germany. But it’s definitely not a real CBS record. It shows up also on eBay all the time. I never heard it in stereo, and I literally just got a stereo copy for $2. I don’t know how I lucked out because it’s kind of like a $50 record. But maybe ‘Twilight’ was spelled wrong or something. Sometimes I type in ‘Marty Manning’ and it shows up with ‘Twilight Zone’ spelled backwards on the g-h or some idiot does it wrong. There’s all kinds of copies online right now. Here’s one for $75. That’s crazy. Says it’s original DJ copy. And another copy for $12. What’s this guy say? ‘A sound adventure in space.’
Every word in that sentence is important.
TV: It is. It’s like a black-and-white cover with the words ‘Twilight Zone’ coming out of the stars. A friend of mine had it and that’s how I ended up getting it, too. Because we liked that music so much.
What other stuff were you listening to?
TV: When we were kids? The other thing was saxophone music because I played sax for four years. Coltrane and Albert Ayler’s first records—basically that era of jazz from ’61 to ’65.
Is this the boarding school years?
TV: Before that even. Seventh and ninth grade? I’m trying to figure out how old I was. I think the first Ayler record was ’65. I woulda been like 14. Those first records—that ESP label, the so-called free-jazz label. Those were written up in a really splashy way in Downbeat magazine. They had a set of reviews that said they were worthless and gave it no stars. And then on the following page a set of reviews that gave them three and four stars—saying they were very important new music. So this created this thing, you know? People wanted to get ‘em right away or never wanted to get ‘em. It made a big impression on me, that’s for sure. It was like Coleman, Dolphy, Coltrane, Ayler and some other players in there too. Roland Kirk, for sure.
Are you still in practice on the sax?
TV: Nah—I wish. I haven’t played in over twenty years. Thirty years actually.
So somewhere in Delaware a saxophone teacher is slightly disappointed.
TV: Yeah—sure.


The Rolling Stones had a huge influence on your pursuit of music as a kid. Can you put into words what it was like touring with Mick Jagger?

Jimmy Rip: It was a good job! It was at a time where all that I was doing was playing with a lot of different people. Actually it had to do with Tom [Verlaine] because this guy named Steve Ribalski managed him and he became an executive at—God, he jumped around from company to company for awhile—I think it was CBS (Records) and that’s where Mick’s first solo record came out on. After Mick had done She’s the Boss, he had gone into the studio to do Primitive Cool and was looking for people to play on it. Ribalski recommended me—but I had met Mick years before that because I was actually a guitar player in a Bette Midler video where she covered ‘Beast of Burden.’ Mick and I became friends then—he was in the video. So when Steve put me on the short list of people to come in and play with Mick, he remembered me and it kind of made it a lot easier. I played some guitars on that record and then when it came time to tour together, I came in as the musical director and band leader. So, that’s how that happened. It went off and on for quite a few years. We toured on that record, then we wrote love songs and we recorded two completely different versions of the Wandering Spirit record. In the middle of that Mick went out and made Steel Wheels. Right after that, Wandering Spirit got a delayed release—I’m making a gigantic story as short as possible—that record got a little mixed up with Atlantic at that point and got pushed to after Christmas in [February] ’93 which kind of ruined our chances of going out to promote it as we planned to in the States and in Europe. Mick was already committed to be in the studio with the Stones to do Voodoo Lounge. So we really didn’t get a chance to do anything but this one show at Webster Hall, which is out on DVD—I keep getting people posting it on my Facebook site. I had never seen it before! We did that and Saturday Night Live—that’s all we got to really play live for that record which was a shame because it was a tremendous band. The band that we had in ’88 and ’89 was really an all-star band—you know, with Joe Satriani—everyone in that band were tremendous musicians. In ’92 and ’93, Mick and I put together musicians to do Wandering Spirit and it really sounded like more of ‘a band’. It was a shame that we didn’t get to tour around with that band because that would have really knocked people out, I thought. We never got to play much in America or Europe. All of the touring we did was in Japan and Australia—Mick was kind of my favorite guy, my favorite living rock ‘n’ roll singer, you know—it was right after that that I said I’m gonna make a record for myself while I’m still young enough to have fun making it. I kind of stopped playing with just everybody that called, made my own record, and started producing other people.
When we spoke the other day you were talking about how you and Tom Verlaine have been friends for close to 30 years. How did you guys meet?
JR: We started playing together in ‘81. Hmm—trying to remember that one. I think I knew Fred [Smith] but I can’t remember how though. I mean, at that time in the early eighties, I was just in New York and if you wanted a guitar player, I was one of four or five people that was on everybody’s [list]—you know, if you were making a record or had a gig—it was different back then, things weren’t so band-oriented. There were lots and lots of singers and lots and lots of producers who were helping those singers. So, there were a lot of recording sessions and tours that could be done if you were a musician. These days, being a studio musician or a hired gun is a totally different situation. The music world, obviously, is way more oriented towards touring because that’s about the only way you can be sure that you’re going to get paid these days. It’s more oriented towards bands. There was a lot more work for hired guns twenty or thirty years ago. So, I think Tom had done one solo record and this was his second one, which was called Dreamtime, and he was going to tour for the first time without Television. I went in and auditioned for it. Got a call the next day from Fred Smith, Tom’s bass player, and he told me that Tom really loved the way I played, thought I was a really good guy, but he only had one question—I had worn a pair of white Beatle boots and Tom wasn’t going to hire me because I had worn those boots [laughs]. We’ve laughed about that any number of times, so whenever I want to make Tom mad, I’ll wear some kind of white shoes. For some reason he’s got something against any kind of white shoe—it disturbs him. So, I almost didn’t even have this thirty-year working thing with him because of a pair of white shoes.
You’ve composed for movies like A Night at the Golden Eagle and The Big Bounce. Was there a certain movie that sparked your interest for diving into that medium?
JR: No. To me that’s the most fun—well the most fun is playing in front of a lot of really good-looking girls—that’s the most fun. But right up in the top five of fun things to do is making music for images. It’s something that I think any musician who was born in the age of television probably spent a very unhealthy amount of time in front of one—especially guitar players. I’ve been playing since I was 6 years old and pretty much playing for a hundred years in front of the TV with a guitar in my hands, whether it was just practicing or trying to play along with the music that was playing on the TV—a movie or a game show—it never mattered to me. I love doing that work. I’ve done a lot of things for the History Channel and stuff. I just love doing that—and it pays really well!.
So when you and Tom started finding these avant-garde silent films to start composing over, did you find the films first and then compose or vice versa?
JR: What happened was, Tom and I for a long time now have done shows that were mainly instrumental, just the two of us. Not completely improv but in structured situations. I knew Tim Lanza who is the curator for I think it’s the largest collection of silent movies in the world—the Rohauer Collection. He was at one of our shows and asked if we would be interested in writing some scores for some of these old movies. Tom said, ‘Yeah,’ but we didn’t want to do any slapstick or really long stuff—fifteen minutes at the most—just oddball experimental things mostly. So he sent Tom like a hundred movies. He watched them and picked around seven or eight. He brought them to my apartment in New York and we watched them over and over and over—on a loop basically. We would sit and jam to them basically. When something was sounding really great we’d move on. That’s how we did it. We kind of had a structure for each one—there is a lot of looseness and improv involved in it, otherwise it wouldn’t be any fun to us. If you saw the charts, they don’t look like regular music charts. We know what the melodies are and we’ve done it so many times now that there are just kind of instrumental cues written on the page. But, we only get to do it three or four times on a good year. I think the last time we did it was a year and a half ago. The first one was ‘98. It’s been ten years now. The first time we did it was at the Grace Church in Brooklyn. We actually sat on the stage in front of the screen, we had a little video monitor in between us, and it was a total disaster. I mean, everyone who was there really liked it but for us it was really tough because we spent the whole show staring down at the floor at this little television set in total darkness and after about fifteen minutes of that I started feeling dizzy, like spinning [laughs]. It was like being in a strobe light or something. We never did that again. Now we kind of sit in the front row with the audience and put the amps up on the stage so that we’re watching the movie on the screen with everybody else, which is a lot more fun.