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World-renowned guitar hero Al Di Meola has thrilled audiences for decades since releasing his debut album Land of The Midnight Sun in 1976. From his work with John McLaughlin and Paco de Lucia, and the Rite of Strings trio with bassist Clarke and violinist Jean-Luc Ponty to his time with fusion supergroup Return to Forever, Di Meola’s brilliant technique on both acoustic and electric guitars has afforded him regal status among the hordes of fretboard fanatics worldwide. With three gold albums and more than six million in record sales behind him, Al Di Meola now welcomes a new decade with an ambitious follow-up to his 2013 studio recording All Your Life: A Tribute to the Beatles with a sophomore homage to the Beatles, entitled Across The Universe, due out on earMUSIC on March 13, 2020. Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips caught up with Al Di Meola ahead of the release of Across The Universe, to discuss the making of the album.

Do you recall the first time you came across The Beatles’ music?
Oh sure, I was 9 years old. I was introduced to the music by my sister because she had the first record, Meet the Beatles and they were already beginning to rage on AM radio in the States. It was like a brand new sound and it was definitely captivating being a kid. So there was the radio, that record and then the Ed Sullivan Show when they appeared … completely blew everybody’s mind. It inspired me to play the guitar, like it did a whole generation of musicians. One thing led to another. I watched their movies when they came out, Hard Day’s Night and Help. I remember going to see those movies in town as a kid and the impression it made on me was magnificent, phenomenal.

You’d already recorded All Your Life, a tribute to The Beatles at Abbey Road in 2013. This new album has a very different sonic personality to that one. Was it important to be that way for you to make another Beatles album?
Yes it was very important to do a record with production, which I could not do at Abbey Road. I didn’t have access to my arsenal of equipment in London. I was on tour in Europe so I had one or two guitars. We rented a Gibson for some things and a steel string for some of the tracks but I didn’t have ninety percent of what I used on this new record, which I did in my studio in New Jersey. That was the main reason for doing the record, I wanted to do it with a lot of production.

What’s the starting point for creating a new arrangement of someone else’s song?
The starting point is sitting down with the harmonic changes and seeing what I can do with it and also bringing a rhythm to it which is different than The Beatles. The elimination or unavailability of the lyrics and vocal is pretty huge, so what you are left with is a great melody and then you have to make the underpinnings of the harmonic movement interesting. I think with a lot of The Beatles music, the focal point was the vocal and the lyrics, for the right reasons … they were super great but as an instrumental, you can’t really play … well if you take a piece like Hey Jude, where Paul is playing piano and he is basically hitting quarter notes, just quarter notes … bang, bang, bang, ‘Hey Jude’, bang, bang, bang, ‘don’t make it bad’, bang, bang, bang. If you did that in an instrumental, you would be in trouble because it wouldn’t be as interesting without that voice and without those words. Now you are faced with … if this is going to work at all, you gotta start experimenting with some different rhythmic approaches and take it outside of what the original was or else you are going to be accused of doing something that is just copying The Beatles and you don’t want that. You have to do something different and you have to take the risk. There is a risk involved. The Beatles are sacred and it’s not to outdo them, if I am going to do it, it has to be something where I bring in my own voice, my own way of playing and always respect the aesthetic that they have in their music, which is absolutely beautiful.

Did you discover anything new about the construction of any of these songs while playing around with them?
Pretty much, yeah I did. It just further solidifies my feelings toward the music, the beauty and the intellect of what they did. There’s a lot of genius in their writing, the harmonic movements underneath the melodies are beautiful in some of it. A piece like Here, There and Everywhere, is considered a standard in music … I mean (the song) Yesterday! They had a genius from very early on. This wasn’t any light music whatsoever. The early critics might have considered it that but there was a lot of genius in it. That’s what I found looking at their music, looking at paper … music paper and writing it all out and then doing my own version of it and taking it to another voice, more in my world.

How much credit do you give George Martin in the whole Beatles picture?
A lot. He started with a beautiful piece of music and with all of that beautiful space, it gave him the ability to write those wonderful classical sections and add brass here and there and the flutes on Fool on The Hill in such a beautiful way. His classical background and production skills really deepened the aesthetic of this music that in the last ten years, I have been rediscovering just how great it was. We were impressionable as kids but as you grew up and go through all the things you go through, you go back to The Beatles and when you look at it, it is incredible what they did in their twenties. They were very fortunate to have George Martin to put it all together. I was fortunate to meet him too.

What did you ask him? What did you want to know?
He presented me with a lifetime achievement award, which I found to be dream-like because I still have to think … did that really happen? It was at the BBC and he presented me with this award and I got to sit down with him backstage and talk, just me and him. I still get chills when I think about it today because he meant so much to music. We talked about The Beatles affect on me and I said well George, it’s because of The Beatles that I play guitar. He was like, you’re kidding me! I said why are you surprised, so many of us have become guitarists because of their influence. He was kind of shocked by that. That was shocking in itself that he was shocked! Then we talked about how he had tinnitus hearing disorder and so do I and we talked about that quite a lot. Then I remember talking distinctly about the aesthetic of the music. He was like, yeah they were pretty good, they weren’t a bad band and came up with some pretty good stuff. I said wh, wh, whaat, what do you mean some pretty good stuff? He said well it wasn’t along the lines of some of the classic jazz standards. It was really funny, I said WHAT? No George, let me tell you something … this was way up there at the tip top. So he was kind of blase about it. Then he asked me a question. He said who in your opinion do you think was the better guitar player in the band? I’m like holy shit, this is George Martin asking me this question. I said well people might say George Harrison. No he said, it was Paul McCartney. Paul was the all round guy, he played drums, he played guitar and piano. So did John but Paul had the slight edge in terms of virtuosity. He was certainly the better piano player. If you listen to the songs he wrote on piano, where he plays piano, he was pretty advanced. You don’t assume that with guitar though. George was talking about the solo ability, the improvisational ability that Paul seemed to have. Then there’s the bass. They didn’t have a bass player so he said well OK, I’ll be the bass player. What he did on the bass was revolutionary. Listen to a record like the White album or Sgt. Pepper or Magical Mystery Tour or Abbey Road, you can really hear very inventive counterpoint that was very much a part of the song, it wasn’t just the foundation, he was playing these great lines. He was super musical.

I’m interested in how you colour your songs with guitars. For instance there’s a Guild 12 string on the album, which sounds like it’s used on Here Comes The Sun. What was thought process in how you would use that instrument?
When you think of the song, you think of that sound for Here Comes The Sun for instance. I definitely remember hearing a chimey sound, like a 12 string or Norwegian Wood for that matter. You hear that sitarish or 12 string type of sound that they employed. You think of that song you think of that sound. It didn’t have to be but that’s what we went with. You could also go a different route but that’s what we did.

Also you returned to your ’71 black Gibson Les Paul which was used on your debut album. What made you pick that up again?
We were just sitting around talking about the days when I first started on the scene. I was known for getting a real punchy sound. The guys in the studio, my engineer and co-producer .. I was telling them that I haven’t been able to get that punchy sound in many years, decades even because I changed the amps that I used and more often I was playing a PRS guitar instead of my signature Les Paul. They said you should try going back to that. I said I have my 1971 Les Paul right there, I haven’t even used it since 1978 but it’s sitting right there in the corner and the Marshall I don’t even know if I still have that. So we went on a search that night through gear and at the back of a stack of gear I found a 50 watt Marshall from the mid 70s that I used in Return To Forever. I thought it was long gone but I said if I plug this in I don’t know if it’s going to work. I plugged it in and immediately I recorded that part on Here Comes the Sun and used the same set up where the electric guitar comes in on Strawberry Fields and a couple of others as well, Golden Slumbers too.

With so many layers in these tracks, how did you know when a track was done?
Instinct. I have to rely on my instinctual quality that comes with maturity. If I was 19 I wouldn’t know that so quickly. It’s all instinct, what you sense is the right time. It’s hard to pinpoint when that is but there were no constraints or no rules here. I am in my own studio, I can fashion the song in any way I want. No one is giving me guidelines, it is pure inspiration and instinct. It’s the amount of years I have put in and maturity that will dictate where it goes, where it ends.

Do you intend to tour this album?
Yeah we’re going to start toward the end of this month in the north east of the States and at the end of April we head to Europe and just continue on. We always hope to come to Australia. We’ve almost made it there so who knows, maybe this time it will happen. I have a brand new agent who surprisingly also happens to be Paul McCartney’s agent. He actually started in the business not with Paul but with me with John and Paco back in 1980. So here I am 40 years later going back to Barry Marshall of Marshall Arts and his connections in Australia are phenomenal because of booking McCartney around the world.

What do you hope people get out of listening to this album?
I don’t know what to expect, although the first record I did All Your Life was very well received. My intention was to follow it up and If I was going to follow it up I wanted to do a more elaborate production than I had done at the Abbey Road recording. You just hope that people can dig it, accept the fact that it is not going to be the same arrangements as The Beatles and accept the new nuances that I have employed into the pieces.

Across The Universe will be released as a CD Digipak, 2LP and Digital on March 13, 2020 on earMUSIC.

WATCH “Strawberry Fields Forever”

Al Di Meola – Across The Universe

Track Listing
1. Here Comes The Sun
2. Golden Slumbers Medley
3. Dear Prudence
4. Norwegian Wood
5. Mother Nature’s Son
6. Strawberry Fields Forever
7. Yesterday
8. Your Mother Should Know
9. Hey Jude
10. I’ll Follow The Sun
11. Julia
12. Till There Was You
13. Here, There And Everywhere
14. Octopus’s Garden

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