The Fickle Finger Of Fate And Other Pop Tales.
Cult power pop king, multi-instrumentalist, solo artist, coverer of great songs on his SOOP (Songs Of Other People LPs) studio wizard, producer, engineer and general nice bloke Michael Carpenter has just released his new LP ‘The Big Radio”, his first solo effort since 2008.
Australian Musician’s Michael Witheford chatted to Carpenter about playing everything himself, the problems with being a power pop guy, his productions (Youth Group, Lazy Susan, The Supahip, 78 Saab, Spy Vs Spy, Eva Trout, just to name a few) his lush studio and asks, why isn’t this guy famous?
So … can you tell me what you listened to when you were a kid. What are the first songs you remember that hit the spot?
Well…. there are a few really significant things that come to mind… I was born in 67. My first ever memories are of April 1970, hearing the Beatles broke up, and being really upset about. At age 3. So they’ve been significant through my whole life. Then it was 70’s radio. I ate it up.
My first albums were Simple Dreams by Linda Rondstadt and the Best of ELO. Both Xmas presents in 77 i think. I was 10. Then it was Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers in 1979-80, and that opened the door to all the jangle, and my first awareness of power pop.
ELO would still have a spot in your heart I imagine … I wouldn’t be without about 4 of their LPS?
But I was always a radio top 40 guy, when the Top 40 was good. Then my brother showed me The Last Waltz in about 1982, and that opened that door. The Blues Brothers movie opened the door to Sam & Dave and Wilson Picket and Aretha. The Big Chill movie opened the door to Motown and classic RnB. Then the 90’s, Matthew Sweet and Jellyfish lead to finding power pop, and it was all over from there.
So what was the first instrument you played, presumably a guitar? When did you start playing?
I started playing drums at 8, but only lasted about 3 weeks before the noise got too much for Mum & Dad. The kit went into the shed til I dragged it out when I was 11. I started properly playing a little then. I had a plan for my brother to borrow my uncle’s guitar and learn. He gave up after a week, so to spite him, I started learning. It worked coz we still play in a band together. But I started learning at the same time as learning drums. At 13. I started playing bass in the school band, then every Sunday at church. So I always have played drums, guitars and bass. I still don’t have any preference or any more advance skill on any of them. I’m ‘exceedingly adequate’ on all of them…
Did you always record stuff by yourself? From bedroom to a larger fully equipped studio? And what’s the advantage of playing all the instruments yourself?
People always ask me what instrument I like or prefer. But I always think I was a record producer. At about 14 I was doing tape to tape recordings and playing everything. I did my first sessions at about 16, and had a 4 track at 17, then it all just grew from there.
I think one of the advantages is that I was always a live player too. I know what a band is SUPPOSED to feel like. So I play everything like I’m playing in the band. Plus it’s easier for me to get my ideas across when I can just do them myself.
I find myself playing a lot of keyboards, even though I’m not that great, because I know what I want to hear. The other thing – and I use this a lot in my creative endeavours – is that you’re only bad at something until you get some experience doing it. So while I’m not a great keyboard player, I know how to play keys on record, because I’ve done a few hundred records with me playing keys. Of course, there’s things I can’t play too. But for about 90% of things, I can do it myself. I know there’s not a lot of people out there like that…
You do play with other folks though; The Cuban Heels. Tell me about them;
By about 2007, I’d made a LOT of records by myself. People had an expectation that my records were power pop/one man band things. But I had accumulated a great bunch of musicians that were my friends. I was also gravitating more towards writing more alt-country type stuff. So, in the middle of recording the Redemption #39 album, I decided to get the Cuban Heels together and record something in exactly the opposite way than I normally would.
Instead of me playing everything and tracking it one at a time, we went into another studio and set up all together. We didn’t rehearse the songs. We didn’t wear headphones. We just played and tracked it all live. There’s videos on You Tube of the actual sessions and it’s all live (except pedal steel and backing vocals). So it was important for me to know I could do THAT.
We have gone on and have our own body of work. An album, a bonus disc, two albums of covers, and a new album that has just gone out to reviewers, but won’t be public until later in the year. .But I don’t really play anything in the Cuban Heels.. just rhythm guitar and lead vocals.
Who are the country/alt-country bands you like?
Steve Earle, Buddy Miller, The Jayhwaks, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Court Yard Hounds, Early Wilco.
Glenn Campbell? You covered Gentle On My Mind.
Yeah. I love him because he was a big crossover star in the ‘70s. That cover was on the ‘By Request’ albums. People actually paid us to record whatever they wanted. So alt country versions of Tom Waits and Weezer and The Cure for example. Steely Dan, The Stones, Beatles, Monkees; all in alt-country style
I think you’ve done 5 SOOP LPs? It still must be hard picking songs when you can play anything from sixty years of rock history?
Yeah … I have 2 SOOP albums on the go as we speak. #6 is finished. #7 before the end of the year. There’s an incredible amount of songs that I’d love to do. But I only do them if I think I can add something to them and make them my own..
I love some of your choices; I’ll Get You, Different Drum, Gentle On My Mind, They Don’t Know (Kirsty MacColl)…it seems you’re bewitched by a great pop melody?
I don’t really understand genres. I mean, I do, of course. But it’s all about a great song, innit? I love great songs. I see no difference between Stevie Wonder, or Jackson Brown or Christina Aguilera or The Monkees. Great songs defy the box we put them in, which makes them open to interpretation. That’s really what the SOOP albums are all about. Great songs have always been there for me. I LOVE being a songwriter, but I love great songs too.
I’ve always thought that any decent tune in any genre can be turned into a great power pop song … slow ballads notwithstanding?
Well… even some ballads are ripe for the picking ! But yes, I agree. A lot of the building blocks of great songs are similar, regardless of genre. The line between power pop and alt-country is slimmer than you think. The song writing can be similar, but the presentation and subject matter different.
You’ve worked with a bazillion bands at Love HZ What’s your main job; arranger, engineer, producer?
I’m a producer first and foremost. I don’t really just engineer any more. I don’t always play on records, but when I’m working with singer/songwriters, I generally do, because they’ve generally come to me because of something else they’ve heard.
I’ve been the whole band on a lot of records now… it would have to be over a hundred. Then, I’m always the mixing guy. Sometimes the mastering guy. Sometimes that photographer or graphic designer…
Tell me what you used in the studio on Big Radio.
Most of the album was recorded at Love Hz Studios on a Macbook Pro, using Pro Tools HD and Avid HD interfaces. No console was used, but preamps were by Neve, Universal Audio, and custom made by NF Audio. Most compression was through a Purple Audio ‘1176’, though a Distressor, and an Altec Compressor were also used. Mixes were all done in the box, and mixed really quickly… no more than about 90 minutes a song, with some being done in under an hour. Vocal mics were a Neumann U97, and OPR U87 clone, a Peluso C12, a Shure SM7, and a Beez Nees U47. 2 tracks were tracked at Turtlerock Studios, and 2 were tracked at Linear Studios. Both were completed at Love Hz Studios. What else do you need?
Who are your favourite guitarists?
Great question … In no particular order Derek Trucks, Ry Cooder, David Lindley Mike Campbell, George Harrison, Lindsay Buckingham, Joe Walsh, Angus Young, John Lennon (a great rhythm player), Keef ,Roger McGuinn, Buddy Miller, Steve Earle (amazing rhythm player) Clapton (I prefer the fearlessness of the early years) That’s off the top of my head.
So what do you think are the Power Pop records you HAVE to own?
Jellyfish – Spilt Milk, Cotton Mather – Kontiki, Teenage Fanclub – Grand Prix, The Who – Any Best Of, Badfinger – Any best of The Knack – Get The Knack, Myracle Brah – Life on Planet Eartsnop, Matthew Sweet – Most everyone will say ‘Girlfriend’, but I think ‘100% Fun’ is a better power pop record, and ‘In Reverse’ is a better pure pop record
Some of your stuff reminds me of Matthew Sweet..is he an “influence”?
Yes… absolutely. Hearing the song ‘Girlfriend’’ changed a lot of things for me. I didn’t know that people made records like that and could get played on JJJ, which is where I heard it. It opened a door for me. I stopped trying to follow Top 40 right then, and just started writing songs I liked, and he went through a period where he was the poster boy of power pop … crunchy guitars and tons of harmonies.
Did you start doing SOOPs before he started doing Under The Covers (covers LPs with Susannah Hoffs from The Bangles)?
Yeah… I came up with that idea over dinner at an Italian restaurant in 2000 with my wife..
Does it frustrate you that power pop seems to be a “genre” if you like that simmers under the other dominant kinds of rock and is still a bit of a “cult” thing?
It’s always frustrated me about power pop. I was a big campaigner for it in this country for a long time, and my career as an artist and producer suffered because of it. It’s like it had a stench on it. Which I really don’t understand. It’s pop music. I still believe that power pop has a place among all ages. But I fear that moment has passed, and it’s viewed purely as ‘retro’ now.
Are you bigger in the US than in Australia?
Well… I think I’m bigger everywhere else than here! I have little pockets all around the place… Spain, Sweden and throughout parts of Europe. The US and Japan. All together it’s a little number. But easily my smallest amount of followers is in Australia. By far.
As you know I’m an Innocents fan and was a band mate doing covers with their ringleader Charles in the 80s…how did you get involved with their new project?
When they reformed in 2000, That was when the drummer from the Rubinoos (absolutely legendary US power-pop band) played in LA with them. They wanted to do a reunion show in Hobart, and I was already working with Rob Smith from the last line-up of the band. He suggested me to play the gig, and I became good friends with all the guys. So we’ve just worked together since. They know me and trust me, and I like them all very much.
Do you have a “pet” guitar that is the special one?
I have a great collection, that I’ve diligently ‘curated’ over a long period of time. I don’t really have a favourite. But I have guitars that I gravitate to by default. I have a Grestch Duojet from 91 that I don’t use that much anymore, but for a long time it was almost the ONLY guitar I had. I have a custom made by Grubisa Guitars, a 12 string electric that is an actual one of a kind, made for me in 96. That guitar is going to the grave with me. I have an Epiphone Sorrento that I’ve had since about 97 that I adore. So there’s no one guitar. But most of the guitars I have I love having. They all express a part of me, absolutely. Basses and drums too
Michael didn’t mention that Big Radio was ranked highly on several international power pop blogs, review sites and magazines, one of which deemed it ‘Power Pop Album Of The Year’. You can get it on CD, iTunes and it’s available for streaming. Carpenter has said this will be his last solo LP. He’ll keep producing at Love Hz , as well as working with his side projects The Cuban Heels, The Supahip and The April Family.
Check out Michael’s website for more info and to buy his music