Imagine. You just played your new CD (that you made in the den last night) for your kids, but it hardly held their attention, which made it more difficult to gather them up and get along to grandma’s house — to hear her new CD. You’re not really looking forward to hearing that one, since her last three CDs have been sort of spacey in a non-relaxing way. Pulling off the highway, you notice the homeless guy still there with his “my new CD for food” sign and when you stop at 7-11 for a cold pop, you see the same unsold bin of discs (Clerks Greatest Hits Vol. 117) that were there months ago minus this new layer of dust. At least the trip is over and the racket from the kids in the back seat has quieted, but they joyfully inform you that they just made a CD of that racket for you, right now.
So what if you actually do make some of the most CD-worthy pop music of the last several years? Like, for instance, Willie Wisely, with his brand of strong songwriting, pop techno jazz rock hi-lo-fi looping swooping swinging and silky spurred vocals? His view of the future of the CD inspired that opening scene. “I really believe that pretty soon you won’t even be able to sell a CD. There’s going to be too many people capable of making great music, just giving them away, just too much hi-fi everywhere. There’s too many people getting too good at making music. It’s not a revolutionary thing anymore, not an underground thing anymore, and pretty soon everybody’s mother is going to be in a band.”
“Watch the expert marketeering of U2, they knew a long time ago this is not about the music. You need a theme, costumes, constant attitudes, constant set changes, and your face, your facial hair, your glasses, your colors, it’s the whole thing. You can go to their concerts and it’s great music, but that’s like a quarter of what’s going on.”
Get the sense that Willie has had a handful of the Biz until it’s oozing out his ears? Maybe so. His range of experience includes being promotions coordinator at First Avenue (“one of the nation’s great rock and roll pit stops”) for six years, working for record stores, and at Shanachie Distribution. Also, schmoozing with dozens of A&R guys behind the scenes at his performances at almost every new music convention from South by Southwest to North by Northeast, even taking the Grammy Showcase competition to its limits, where he was beaten by Save Ferris near the end. And with several CDs and many more independent tapes released to his name(s), it would seem that he’s been gettin’ jazzy with it more than a few times. Isn’t there a wide-eyed innocent beginning, somewhere under that scratched surface?
Age; 14. Year; late 1979. “A friend put on an album on the old turntable/radio/8-track dinosaur thing and just blasted the fast version of “Revolution” for us on 11 and I just freaked at how powerful it was, the bass drum just kicking through my skull and that bloody murder scream. For some reason I had never heard it before and we played it over and over again until I remember my face laying in the orange pile carpet going ‘I’ve got to do this! This is so cool!’ And my best friend, who kind of thought he played guitar said ‘You’re our lead singer because everybody likes you!’ But then I went to high school and quickly became a nerd. Eventually I got so sick of ’80s new music and the old ’60s rock that I just went backwards into jazz.”
That led to his first garage band, Peas Porridge. Later, a Caribbean Jewish reggae excursion called Stone Soul Picnic (“do we have to talk about that?”) and by 1989, the Willie Wisely Trio.
“We released a bunch of cassettes and a CD and it was all about swing, big band, horn arrangements and gang vocals, upright bass, the shit that’s becoming all the thing now with lounge. There is some flavor of that style on my second Pravda CD, but the one before that, Raincan, was where we were freaking and punking up actual Rogers and Hammerstein songs, but still swinging. It was all about shuffles and big crazy changes in the music, this whole cocktail swing thing before anyone was even squishing Esquivel into their CD player.
“I have this thing where I don’t like liking things that everybody likes. A lot of us suffer from that actually, I’m not special. But even I jumped on a bandwagon lately with the Beatle-ish flavor of my last two records.”
Namely, She, and the latest Turbosherbet. Two modern, yet traditional, playful, but disciplined, and musically delicious pop masterpieces. She, practically pure pop with the huge and main emphasis on songwriting, got some interesting and notable reactions. Chris Difford of Squeeze really liked it. Shania Twain loved the record, and she auditioned Willie as rhythm guitarist and backing vocalist for her band last September in New York, but as he put it, “our voices just did not blend.”
“The Hanson boys also loved it. I don’t quite know how to put this, but I will be auditioning for their band at some point. They would love to have me in their backing band.”
Turbosherbet gives production the wheel with producer John Strawberry Fields (who also co-produced She) and turns out more technoriffic without smothering the songs. Willie admits he wasn’t used to giving up so much control over his projects. “I let him go. I sat on the couch and nodded yay or nay while he did things that made me think, ‘you know, I could get used to this.’ I’ve never let someone rise to be my equal in a recording session, but he is my partner and a hugely underrated producer who can play virtually anything and make incredibly complicated albums in 150 hours. We were done in a few weeks and never worked past midnight.”
His favorite pull quote for John is “Like She, Turbosherbet displays a unique array of soul jazz with remarkable production from the greatly underestimated John Strawberry Fields.” And then, “How can you not like a guy with a name like that anyway?”
And that brings us back to where we were, which is actually here where we are, wondering where we’re going from here. Is there a way for the master musician to master the business? Is it possible to overcome the hurdles and still prove worthy? Willie offers this explanation and personification. “You go to a Prince show, who is showing up everybody right now. He dances for two and a half hours with the greatest pop rock voice ever born, I believe, a voice capable of more texture and sound than anyone ever born in history, is dancing for two and a half hours in a manner that is completely his own. He’s got way more moves than Michael Jackson ever has, he can write Beatle-quality tunes or Sly Stone-quality tunes and he trots this shit out with super light shows and it’s just unbelievable, and no video screen by the way, he’s such an incredible presence. He plays piano, then solo piano, then he’s fucking his piano, there’s this huge sex show going on, then he gets on guitar and he’s wailing for an hour with all this Hendrix crap. He’s a full package, and will be one of the only people who will be able to just sell their music anymore. But even he is this whole rounded thing.
“I prefer an artist like Picasso who was very serious. He was serious about the way he painted and sculpted and presented himself. He was serious about the way he fucked women, about everything. I’m trying to be a more serious artist the last three years. I’ve been trying to do fewer high kicks on stage and roll my eyes less. I used to dance around in suits and play crazy jazz. I’m just trying to be myself now, it’s time to just be me.”
And who will Willie be? The answer to that is offered as multiple choice, and I’ll tell you right now the correct answer is; D) all of the above.
A) “I’ve got a second band called the Conquerors. It’s a revival band with lots of originals, a democratic four piece, but I’m not the leader — I play farfisa, and there’s hollow bodied bass, and guitar. We play primarily locally (Minneapolis), but we’ll touring a little bit. Our first EP, tentatively titled Turn On, Tune Out, Drop Dead, is coming out only on vinyl on the Get Hip label out of Pittsburgh, which releases mostly vinyl. We sound at any given moment like the Yardbirds or the Zombies or any number of obscure German, Spanish, or Dutch bands from the mid ’60s. These guys are not playing Satriani, they’re playing Jimmy Page. And we’re more like a gang than a band, you know, we’ve actually beaten up people together and there aren’t many bands like that left where fighting is what you do best, and there’s about forty percent music left.”
B) “I just met with Chris Difford in London. We were supposed to do some writing together but what he wound up doing was just offering to produce my next record, which would be a neat opportunity. He and Elvis Costello have a studio way out of town in this old revamped barn, so we set up plans to do some recording next summer. He wants to get Bruce [Thomas?] and the rhythm section from the Attractions behind me. He said he feels that ‘a little austerity from English musicians might put my music in a better place’.”
C) ” My next step is to write a musical that doesn’t sound like a musical. There’s a very popular movie from the last few years and it’s a very unlikely movie to write a musical about but I’m doing it since there’s just tons of precipices for people to kick into song. I think my sensibilities are perfect for this job because there is something kind of presentational about my music, it puts its legs at shoulder width, faces forward, opens its eyes and blurts itself out, you know, there’s something Broadway about this. Kind of like Bowie, he has a little theater going too, not in the way he looks or his character, it’s just something in the music that’s theater.
“I’m taking this straight to Broadway producers. I’m sick of record labels and selling a few thousand records. Since 1982, I’ve been making cassettes, selling a few to my friends, a few hundred here, a few thousand CDs there, I’m sick of it. It got me a little status, big long distance phone bills, playing a lot of shows to twenty or thirty people all over the country, I mean all over the country. I can write circles around people who are selling millions of records, but that means nothing, it’s nothing to even really brag about. As Billy Joel so expertly said, and I realize that it takes some nerve to quote Billy Joel right now, but he was doing this character on VH-1 recently going, ‘Well son, you can’t play? Hmm, [scratches beard], You can’t sing? [scratches cheek] Hmm, you can’t write? [leans forward] You’re our man! [pats on back].’ That nailed it for me. So you got Bobby Darin selling a million records while Ella Fitzgerald’s singing the same song selling twenty thousand. The injustice has always been there, though.
“Enough business. It’s time to write songs.”