CRAIG LEON: FLYING THROUGH SPACE
Producer and arranger Craig Leon is best known in the United States for being present at the creation of new wave music, helming classic albums by Blondie, Ramones and Richard Hell. But to progressive rock aesthetes and followers of allegedly serious music, the effervescent and scholarly Mr. Leon is the man who in the early 80s created two LPs worth of gorgeously warped, drastically advanced, generically unclassifiable music based on the idea of interplanetary Top 40 radio. Stupendous twin feats of purely tonal reasoning, as multilayered in concept as some deep-dish SF classic yet as eerily cozy as your last late-night bout with Can or Ash Ra Tempel, Nommos and Visiting are now re-released as the whimsically titled Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music Vol. 1. The Facebook chat interview came with an unusual amount of transatlantic static, our faces flickering in and out of a blizzard of stunted bandwidth. This interview by Ron Garmon.
I wanted to ask about early influences.
Oh, gosh. As a musician? I had a pretty schizoid upbringing. I was trained and loved from a very early age—we’re talking young childhood—playing what’s called classical music on the piano. I hate that the term classical, but that’s what it was, the old masters. The very first record my dad ever gave me was Beethoven’s Sixth. We lived down South in the middle of nowhere and, late at night, I loved listening to early rock ‘n’ roll radio and the greatest stuff was the Grand Ole Opry out of Nashville and Howlin’ Wolf out of Arkansas. Another early record my father got me was Smokestack Lightnin’ and I loved that! They helped define what I did afterwards. Specifically for Nommos and Visiting, the influences came from the avant-garde and classical side—”Ballet Mécanique” was written by an American named George Antheil in the 20s. I have the poster for the premiere right here over my shoulder and I’m sorry Facebook can’t let you see it. He was a student of Stravinsky. Seven player pianos hooked up to a sync mechanism and piano rolls with holes cut in them that had them play pounding rhythms. Musically, that had a lot to do with the rhythms of Nommos. Then, of course, I was big fan of the German synth bands. When I worked at Sire, I tried to bring in Can, Kraftwerk, Neu! and others, and I got rejected on all of them. They never sold any records—with the exception of Kraftwerk and them they did want, but they ended up being signed by their American affiliate. I wasn’t trying to consciously create Krautrock or anything industrial and it turns out the main inspiration for the records was something entirely different—
We’ll get to that! You’re famous for producing and playing on new wave rock LPs. But your first gig was on a Climax Blues Band record.
Yeah, not a so-called punk record. It was the first production job I ever had. They were working on an album in England and the band didn’t like it and their producer wanted to hang out in Florida so he picked my little studio. I did a bunch of arrangements that everybody liked so Richard Gottehrer asked me to come work for him at Sire. I sold the studio and went to work there.
Climax Blues Band couldn’t get it right so that was your start in the biz?
Exactly, but they did get it right!
You worked at Sire during the 70s. This was your Brill Building experience—
Yeah, well, Seymour [Stein] and Richie, the owners, came right from the Brill Building. Richie was out of 1650 Broadway, which was kind of the alternative Brill Building. He wrote a lot of those early 60s pop songs and Seymour was a promotion guy.
What was producing the first Ramones album like? Did they have clue one about recording anything?
Well, a little knowledge is sometimes dangerous! Tom Erdelyi [aka Tommy Ramone] was the manager of the band and had the concept of the band which to me was very, very important, which is why I credited him as associate producer on the album because he actually came up with the concept for the band. In terms of recording, he’d engineered a little bit but didn’t know a lot about it. The rest of them didn’t know much about it. But they had the songs and a distinct concept of what they wanted to do. Contrary to popular belief, we didn’t play it live—there were overdubs and odd concepts I kind of put in there because I wanted their album to sound radically different from everyone else’s because everybody’s albums sounded the same. Nobody had quite figured out how to record the louder bands. The Stooges’ albums didn’t sound all that good and neither did the MC5’s, so we couldn’t really record them conventionally like those records. It’s been written about a lot—the exaggeration-as-a-joke early Beatles-like stereo. Their name comes from the Beatles—‘Paul Ramone’ was the hotel check-in name for Paul McCartney. They really thought they were going to be one of the biggest bands on the planet and in a weird way, they did it. Thirty-eight years later and we just went gold on the first album a week ago!
What did most of the corporate people you dealt with think of the turn in mid-70s rock?
It has to be either the first Ramones or the first Suicide album. I write and compose and my wife and I make our own records, but when you’re producing a record for somebody else, it’s another thing altogether. You’re trying to create a sonic environment unique to that particular artist and to help them get their point across. Nowadays it’s how many people it takes to cobble together a viral hit on YouTube. Back then, it was to trying to establish the identity of a band.
It’s one of the reasons the music of that era is still present in the culture.
Before Warners got involved, we were a tiny label with five people working for it, like an indie label today. All that stuff was completely under the radar for the people at the big labels and if they noticed it at all it was to say it wasn’t very good.
When did you take up the synthesizer?
I played classical piano. At Sire we had a sister label called Passport and there was a very long project going over there with Larry Fast, who was a keyboard player who went on to play with Peter Gabriel. He was doing one of those things where they take written orchestral music and recreate it one note at a time. He didn’t read music very well so I got drafted to go help him out on a semi-classical piece he was working on. I read all the notes and I learned from there.
Did you ever hear Beaver & Krause? Parts of their early 70s records come close to what you did on Nommos.
Of course! Paul Beaver had a synth record out on Takoma before I did.
Tell me about the Brooklyn Museum exhibit that inspired Nommos and the other recordings.
There was a book that accompanied it and my wife and I were fascinated by this particular tribe the Dogon, whose art was being exhibited. They had a cultural tradition involving aliens visiting from space—they were very specific about what planet it was— who taught them the basics of civilization, kind of like our stories of angels in Western religion and mythology. They had pictures of these beings, which were kind of amphibious. They actually described where these creatures said they came from—a star system very far from ours, with attributes something like the Dog Star Sirius. This is in terms of speculative fiction—I’m not saying it’s true, but when I thought of this, I began to wonder, ‘Surely they had some kind of music.’ So I created from the legends an alternative musical system that these beings would’ve used.
I don’t wanna bore you.
Don’t worry about that! What were the parameters you set for yourself in executing this concept?
I used a system of very repetitive short drum loops, which is pretty much what African drum loops are, only mine were a bit more in 4 and some of theirs are in 6. Depends upon what tribe it is and everything. And then I created very specific small-scales tonality—like five-tone pentatonic scales but not the same ones we normally use and put those two things together. Also some parts of ancient Egyptian, Greek and Phoenician music had these very simple melodic lines. On top of that, I thought if they came from an aquatic planet, they obviously—
—heard things underwater!
So in painting a science-fiction picture of what these guys were listening to, that’s kind of what interested me. Of course it’s not done as an intellectual exercise but as a kind of a supernatural fictional, kind of tongue-in-cheek thing … not as if presenting a paper on this music.
No, it seemed rather more instinctual than that. Don’t be surprised if one day a religious cult comes out of these records.
Well, they might—the original concept of the Dogon religion is quite complex. I just wanted to show what was on the transistor radio, so to speak. What they were listening to as they were flying through space, perhaps in suspended animation for years. There are books and books and books on the psychology and religion of these creatures, especially in France. It would take a lot to attempt the Dogon religion, I think.
How many other musicians were involved on the record?
Nommos? Pretty much me and Cassell Webb, who still plays with me live.
Why did you re-record the album?
I wanted to add some things to it and tie it together with the second record, Visiting, which is a more earthly version of the idea. Same principles, but fast-forwarded a thousand years in technology. We didn’t have enough room in those days on two vinyl records. I started tinkering with it around 1995 and finally wanted to see it through. Nommos and Visiting, if you play those records orchestrally, they sound like my other orchestral records, which is why I’m gonna start performing them live orchestrally. We will be doing that in London with an orchestra next year. Nommos and Visiting together had a smaller budget than the first Ramones record, which was one of the smallest budgets of all time. I couldn’t afford an orchestra at the time.
Visiting is very comparable to a whole fistful of prog rock classics in my opinion. How long did recording it take?
About a week. Nommos may have taken a slight bit longer. I’m old-fashioned about my stuff, I actually write it out, sketch it out and then play it, so the writing took much longer.
Little could be further removed from Blondie or Richard Hell. What was the reaction to these albums upon release?
Probably no reaction. [Laughs]
Dead on arrival, eh?
Pretty much. A few avant-garde publications noticed it and it got airplay on classical stations late at night with the other twentieth-century stuff. As far as the audience for Richard Hell and Blondie goes, there was a whole thing with a lot of the New York bands of that era being into the avant-garde scene, particularly the Velvet Underground and Suicide, but that’s another conversation. They weren’t big sellers and still aren’t.
What made you decide these two records are worth retrieving?
When Nommos came out it was terrible sounding, and I didn’t want that to be what they remembered. I didn’t realize original copies now go for all kinds of crazy money. Same with Visiting. I wanted to do these before a whole bunch of crappy bootlegs came out. I wanted to use it to get some of my ideas about sequential music and more ‘difficult’ music into the mindset of some of my classical music partners so they can help me make more records like these.
CRAIG LEON’S ALBUMS NOMMOS AND VISITING ARE AVAILABLE AS ANTHOLOGY OF INTERPLANETARY FOLK MUSIC VOL. 1 FROM RVNG INTL. AND CRAIG LEON’S NOMMOS IS AVAILABLE NOW FROM SUPERIOR VIADUCT. VISIT CRAIG LEON AT CRAIGLEON.COM.