Life is Strange
An Interview with Producer & Musician Larry Dvoskin
Back in 2003, when I was working exclusively as a freelance journalist, I received a call from the editor of the alternative weekly newspaper Nashville Scene, which is basically Nashville, Tennessee’s version of NYC’s Village Voice. The editor was looking for a writer to cover NYC-based auditions taking place for an in-development Reality TV program: a talent search not unlike American Idol, which would focus on the discovery of America’s first openly gay country singing star. The brains behind American Pride, as the show was to be called, was a veteran record producer, songwriter, and musician named Larry Dvoskin, who at the time had just received a Gold Record award for producing Meredith Brooks’ latest album. While I was doing research for the Nashville Scene article (which became one of that publication’s most controversial cover stories of the year) I interviewed Dvoskin multiple times and found him to be a charming and complex individual with a deep cache of behind-the-music style stories juicier than those told by the most seasoned rock stars I’d interviewed. Larry was a gas, and although American Pride was never successfully sold to television (a shame, really), he’s continued to seek out new creative endeavors while producing and writing songs for other artists.
This year, Larry Dvoskin finally gathered up a selection of his own songs, accumulated over the course of his career, and, with the help of friends, recorded his first solo CD project, entitled Life is Strange. In this exclusive interview with Ink 19, Larry Dvoskin talked about what lead to the creation of Life is Strange, reminisced about his colorful career in various facets of the music industry, dished out advice for the up-and-coming artist and, of course, shared some good road stories as well.
While I know you from your efforts with American Pride, which was a television project, you have an extensive background in the music industry, producing other artists and songwriting. For someone who’s unfamiliar with your work, what’s important to know about your background in order to really get where Life is Strange is coming from?
I’ve been a professional musician for over three decades and I’d say that I’ve lived the life of the movie Almost Famous mixed with Spinal Tap. I’ve performed and toured with or produced or written with such an array of stars, everything from collaborating on songs with Robert Plant, Cheap Trick, Bad Company, Sammy Hagar, Meredith Brooks and members of The Beach Boys to touring with and opening for Queen, The Allman Brothers, Tom Petty, Heart, and Black Sabbath. I’ve helped people like Fischerspooner and other hipster bands get record deals, and I’ve been very fortunate. The thing is, there’s no middle class in the music business. You’re either a pop star like Sting or Billy Joel or you’re a struggling band trying to make it. There’s a very thin layer in the music business of someone who would work year after year and not be an enormous superstar, and yet also not be a struggling beginner [who’s] waiting tables and then playing on the weekends with his band.
Since you have experience as both a songwriter and professional musician, why such a long delay in recording and releasing your first solo CD?
The way the business is, what I found as a professional songwriter is that those who record and perform other people’s songs are people like the American Idol winners. Most of my really interesting and artistic music isn’t something I can pitch as a songwriter. But I had years of songs that my friends, when drunk at three in the morning, would sing along to and say, “That’s the best song I’ve ever heard!” Then I don’t see them for years and [then one day] they will just come up to me singing the chorus of a song like “Life is Strange.” After all of these years I decided, “Why not put together an art project, not to get rich, not to get famous, not to get attention or anything else, but just for my fellow colleagues and friends.” What’s interesting and unusual to me is the amount of positive response I’ve received. People of all different types and age groups just love it! There’s been a really good response to the music because it’s coming from a very pure place. I’m kind of going for a wackier, more psychedelic slant. My influences were people like John Lennon, The Beatles, and people who didn’t take themselves too seriously or [who] at times would parody themselves. They’d have spiritual banter or political banter but it wouldn’t be overt, it would be more playful and tongue-in-cheek.
Along that line, at times the music seems almost like it was recorded for children, although it does get a little racy in parts!
I have a friend, Gerard McMahon, who wrote the song “Cry Little Sister” from The Lost Boys soundtrack. He’s got a huge following and he called me up saying that every time he and his eight-year-old son, Quinn, get in the car he wants to hear the Life Is Strange CD, which is peculiar because acid freaks who go to Burning Man want to hear Life Is Strange. So, it’s a two-headed monster.
Speaking of Acid Freaks at Burning Man, let’s talk about the cover artwork, which is very intriguing, very whimsical. Would you like to talk about how that was conceived?
In the middle of the cover picture there’s a hand with an eye in the center of the palm. That’s an ancient symbol called the Hamsa Hand. It shows up in several different cultures but there’s an Indian version of the Hamsa Hand and an Egyptian version as well. It’s a hand that protects you from evil and is also like the eye on the pyramid on the back of the dollar bill. It’s meant to be like the divine, all-seeing eye. So, there’s a sort of mystical symbol, and then there’s wacky stuff, like a tractor-trailer that’s been turned on its nose, so it’s up in the air. That’s called “The Big Rig” and it was an art installation meant to protest our dependence on foreign oil that I saw at Burning Man three years ago. If you opened the tractor-trailer’s door there was a rainforest inside made from plastic flowers. There are a bunch of different things on the cover and it’s really just meant to symbolize the fact that we live in a world where what really happens is stranger than science fiction. We have technology that can pinpoint the beginning of the Big Bang and yet we can’t get along with people in the Middle East. That’s strange.
Musically, part of what’s interesting for me, and what I think is more important than [saying] “here’s an album” and reviewing it, is telling the stories behind some of the songs. There’s really a magical mystery tour with each of the songs. You know, people are complaining in the music world that they hear one song, let’s say it’s “Tik Tok” by Kesha, and then every other song on the record sounds like a version of that same song.
Hasn’t it been that way for the past ten years though, to be honest?
It’s been going on for a long time. What I used to love was buying a record by someone, let’s say it was the Beatles’ The White Album, and they’d have some beautiful little acoustic guitar songs like “Rocky Raccoon” and then they’d have big, wild electric songs like “Revolution,” and it was an album that was varied. It was still them because the singing was the same and the mentality of the artist was the same, but the music went and took you on a journey. The Who used to be like that; they had very loud songs and then songs with just a guitar and voice. I wanted to go back to that earlier era where an album wasn’t just one song repeated eleven times.
You know, I was very fortunate to be in a band called Zeno that opened for Queen on their last big European tour, the Some Kind of Magic Tour. Queen was such a class act. Freddie Mercury could jump into the air from one of the speakers, be in a somersault upside-down, singing a high note and be in perfect pitch the whole time. He was such an amazing front man.
Tell me about Zeno.
Zeno was a band I was in with the younger brother of Uli Roth, the original Scorpions guitar player, so it was a Scorpions-meets-Queen type of rock band, and I played keyboards. And [from being in various bands] I’ve really lived Spinal Tap, you know? There was a moment when I was on tour with Zeno opening for Krokus and Keel in some mid-Eighties metal tour. You know that moment in Spinal Tap where they’re playing at the amusement park and it says “Puppet Show and Special Guest Spinal Tap”? I had that kind of moment when we were in Milwaukee. I opened the curtain [of the bus window] as we pulled up to the venue where we were going to play. It was a bowling alley that also had concerts; it was the most bizarre thing. On the marquee it said: “Fish Fry, All You Can Eat – $4.99… “
It’s just like in Hedwig & The Angry Inch, where she plays at the seafood restaurant!
And the sign said “The Milwaukee Bowl: Wednesday Fish Fry. Thursday Ladies Night: Ladies Bowl for Free. Friday: Krokus, Keel and Zeno in Concert.” Then I looked at the TV on the bus and it was like “Puppet Show with Special Guest Spinal Tap.” I was living in Spinal Tap. I just thought, “Oh my God, how low have I sunk that we’re playing third on the bill behind a fish fry and a ladies bowling night?” You know, you lament, when you’re a rock star, that you’re not as famous as whoever is the stadium act. Then you become a stadium act and you OD or end up in rehab.
Then there was the time in my first band, Fandango, that I was in fresh out of high school, where we opened for the Allman Brothers. While doing that gig our truck got stuck in the snow and we had no equipment. We were playing in Wilkes Barre, PA for 10,000 people, and we got word that if we could find some cocaine for Gregg Allman we could use the Allman Brothers’ gear. Out comes everyone ripping all of their stage clothes out of every suitcase and out of every box and going through everything, but it was the one day no one had any cocaine. I found a little jar with the tiniest little flakes at the bottom – like, almost an insult to the gods. For a rock god like Gregg Allman it would be rude to present such a measly offering. And yet there I was, a trembling teenager holding this little spoon with my hand shaking, shoveling it up to the nose of this six-foot-something, mutton-chopped, long-haired blond, completely whacked out at the time Gregg Allman. And then the next thing you know, ten minutes later I’m up on his riser playing his B3, with all of the whiskey stains and cigarette burns that had seen the likes of “Whipping Post” and “Jessica” and “Rambling Man” and all of those amazing, historic songs. And I just thought, “Hey, this isn’t so bad!” I went from listening to The Allman Brothers to opening for them. It’s a very amazing thing, what happens in Rock & Roll.
Tell me the back-story of how the song “Everyone’s a Hooker” was inspired?
Before he was Governor [of California], Arnold Schwarzenegger was being interviewed and the interviewer was making fun of him and ridiculing him, saying, “You don’t know how to act. You just take your shirt off and flash a gun around. You’re nothing more than a prostitute.” And he just said, in his thick Austrian accent [imitating Schwarzenegger’s accent], “Well, you know everyone in Hollywood is a prostitute. It’s about living fantasies, it isn’t real. We make believe.” And I was amazed and thought, “Wow, Arnold just compared himself to a prostitute.” Quite honestly, my neighbor who was the former Miss Russia, who is now sober after going through recovery, when she was whacked out on crack and champagne, could hardly stand up and was out of her mind, she turned to me once and said in this crazy Russian accent [imitating Russian accent] “Larry, all your friends, they’re prostitutes and drug addicts!” Actually, she sounded more like Bela Lugosi. But there’s this idea about capitalism, that each of us has some pure part of our soul that we trade to live, to exist in a society that’s capitalistic. You could be throwing a football or doing brain surgery or singing beautiful songs, but you’re giving something to get something. That song, “Everyone’s a Hooker,” will be the first single. It’s very American.
And it’s very catchy, with its reggae beat.
Yeah, and I don’t know why, but they’re playing it at my yoga center. I mean it’s not something you can chant in yoga class every day.
I also wanted to ask you about the song “King of Trite,” which is very catchy and topical. How was that inspired?
I’m really glad that you brought it up, because it’s written about a man who is no longer with us, named Bud Prager. He was the manager of Cream for a while, and then Mountain, with Leslie West, and Foreigner. He’s one of the big, old school classic rock managers, and he was my manager when I was much younger. He was like a silver fox; you would go in his office and he had floor to ceiling gold records – and they’d be amazing gold records, like Disraeli Gears or “White Room” or “Sunshine of Your Love” and then the Woodstock album and all the Foreigner Records, all of that stuff. I used to go into this little room and play the piano for him, and if he liked the songs that I wrote he’d give me a check each week to live, this was when I was still a teenager. I just felt like a pinball machine that would crank out these songs. One year, my option was coming up and he was going to go on tour with Foreigner, because they were having a huge hit with Foreigner Four and “Waiting for a Girl Like You.” So, my act of teenage rebellion was to write a song about what it would be like to be a puppet on a string, just churning out generic pop songs. I sang the song to him and instead of being insulted that I was making fun of him, he renewed my contract.
And that was “King of Trite”?
Yeah! So that song was probably written in 1980, and never recorded (before now). It’s this whole idea that public figures are like puppets on a string that somebody’s holding. It’s all about that idea, and it could apply to a modern political figure, such as George Bush, just as easily [as someone in the music business]. The reason why I put this record together – and I’m so humbled and surprised by the reaction – is that… they say it takes thirty years to write your first album and then you have twelve months to write your second. This is a thirty-years-in-the-making record. “King of Trite” was written in 1980 and it’s something that has been kicking around. There’s a breakdown after the bridge where it goes to a piano interlude, and I pretend to sing like Bill Murray on Saturday Night Live, when he did his lounge singer character. I meant to try imitating Barry Manilow. I don’t know if that comes across. The fact that other people have responded to that song is just amazing. The songs that stay in my mind decades later, I feel like they have some kind of special mojo that needs to come out.
“I Am a Robot” has a very provocative lyric that caught my attention: “At the salad bar for sex fiends.” What’s that about?
It’s just about madness. It captures a moment in New York when I was running with a group of people who were just extremely crazy and we would write songs. The original lyric was, “At the salad bar for sex fiends/ you’ll find Ian Hunter’s mother/ in the New York gutter.” Then I thought, “Poor Ian Hunter.” I know that if somebody insulted my mother I’d be very offended, especially if it was somebody who was a complete stranger. But I’d put Ian Hunter in there because of that song “All the Young Dudes” that sounded like he was on a lot of drugs at the time, all that seventies glam and Hedwig-type decadent rock positioning. So, I changed it to “Galileo’s mother” because I don’t think anyone related to Galileo is still alive, I think enough time has passed. And the idea about being a robot is really just about being a member of the Rat Race, being conditioned to be at work by nine and come home at five. Especially outside of the urban centers where people do the same thing every weekend, see the same people for dinner and go to the same country clubs, wear the same clothes and attend the same churches where it becomes like a programmed thing.
The very last verse was really [originally] about a serial killer that’s [thinking] “They do it in the paper/ why can’t I stab and rape her/ I’m a robot.” It’s about how people become desensitized to violence, where they don’t know the difference between right or wrong. I had to change that lyric to someone wanting to kill, but then waking up and realizing that they’re not [going to do that], because I realized that words have power. It’s sort of how the Manson Family felt that the song “Helter Skelter” was sending them messages. I wanted to take responsibility for each word on the record and know that if I wrote something I wouldn’t want someone to misconstrue it or be empowered in a negative direction. I do feel that every word and every thought we have has creative powers, so I wanted to take responsibility for it, in a sense.
The production on that song reminds me of the techniques used by Roy Thomas Baker on the Queen albums he produced.
Some of that production was done in a studio in Brooklyn called Excello. Roy Baker would famously record a part, say, sixteen times and he’d layer up the same vocal sixteen times and then he’d add an instrumental part sixteen times and he’d build up these huge, massive walls of sound very much in a style inherited from Phil Spector. I was at Excello working on it or doing some kind of a mix and I believe that when I left the people went crazy and banged a lot of instruments and shouted, “I am a Robot / Love love,” repeated many times. They also have an original plate reverb, which is this giant [piece of equipment]. You know how computers used to take up a whole room, and it looked like a sci-fi movie? Well, they have this reverb version [of that]. Nowadays, everything comes in a chip in a computer so you don’t even see it, but they have the actual old school version – this giant thing. They put [the song] through this plate and it gave it that big sound. Of course, in the days of Queen, Roy Baker was using an old-fashioned reverb plate, which is very analog and old school. People are going back to old school techniques now and starting to press vinyl again. Quite frankly, for the first time in years I listened to some Bob Dylan records and they sounded so good on vinyl.
It’s so easy to forget, but there’s definitely a difference that can be heard between analog and digital.
Yeah, because it’s more dynamic, and when vinyl is hit to its peak it kind of compresses and it actually sounds more exciting and punchy, which is what you try to capture in mastering – a process whereby you make it loud and more dynamic. But vinyl just has this warmth and yet it also has this great dynamic range. So, I think it was that plate reverb on “I Am A Robot” that gave it that analog, bigger sound.
That leads me to another question I wanted to ask, because I know that you’re a very spiritual person, which is: how is your spirituality reflected in these songs?
Very poorly [laughs]. Actually, the real answer to that is [in] the very last song, which is “Each One of Us.” That’s really about the fact that we’re all on this search for who we are and why we’re here, and the idea that eventually we come to a realization of enlightenment that we’re all from the same place and we all, one day, will return to that place. For some people it’s returning to Jesus and for others it’s returning to this state of oneness they find through psychedelics. For other people it’s just finding happiness in life. The spirituality is really in the playfulness of it, in more specific terms in the last song “Each One Of Us” and also in the song “Love Heels,” which is spelled H-E-_E_-L-S. That song is really about how love is this humbling force of nature that is both creative and destructive. It’s bigger than we are. I’ve felt all along that the most spiritual records are those that just have enlightenment in the vibration of the sound. To me, songs like “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or “She Loves You” by The Beatles are as spiritual as any “Om Namah Shivaya” that I could chant in yoga class. The consciousness of it is one of love. To this day, the song “All You Need Is Love” is just peace coming around and around and around. I decided to not be preachy, because if you’re preachy then it’s hard to reach the people who need to be reached. The record is really meant to be fun and entertaining.
The CD sounds great production-wise as well. How did your own sensibilities as a producer influence the sounds you went for on the CD?
It’s a bit of a hodgepodge because the record was recorded over three years in different countries, but each song has its own [sound]. “Love Heels” was recorded in Melbourne, Australia. My friend did all the music there and I did the vocals in New York. “Everyone’s a Hooker” just had to have an authentic reggae feel, so I had my friend Mark Shine work on that. He’s a Jamaican artist who lives in Queens, so he has a full-on Jamaican/Rastafarian band that played on that tune. Then my friends from Boston did “The Only Thing Missing,” which has a very Springsteen/Mellencamp kind of Americana rock feel. So, each track was done differently – like how George Martin approached a Beatles record. He looked at each song and figured out how he could make that song come to life. If it was “Eleanor Rigby” he would remove the band and just put a string quartet under Paul McCartney’s voice. I tried to approach each song as its own entity and make it come alive for itself and not copy any trend or style. Getting it all to fit together was the unpleasant part, because it’s all about how you segue everything.
Did you also master the disc?
The guy who mastered it is someone I found through Neil Dorfsman, the famous producer of Dire Straits. He turned me on to this guy named Chris Murth, who develops gear – he’s a tech head – and lives here in New York. He actually grabbed the record and made it sound much better than I had imagined, so I have to give him credit. He got so into the record that I had to wrestle it out of his hands [laughs]. Most people treat [the job of mastering] like a dentist appointment: you’re in at eleven and you’re out at noon. He took the record and he kept mastering it. I thought, “This is great, it’s done!” He says, “No no no, last night I was working on it and I changed the low end and moved the high end and now it sounds even better!” Each time he sent it to me I was like, well the first one was great and the second one was great. After a few weeks I had to pull it away from him because he really loved it and wouldn’t let go.
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And usually it’s the case that you can’t take your hands off it when you’re doing it yourself.
Yeah, and you I know I have that [tendency] as a producer. I’m producing a lot of people myself who are making their own self-released CDs and I find that, as much as people say they have a fear of failure there is an even greater fear of success. You have a tremendous number of people who are openers and very few people who can just close and say, “OK, it’s done!” Just today I talked to a guy who’s paid me for an entire album. We started in November 2008 and it’s now April of 2010, and we haven’t finished one song! And I’ve been paid already, up front. But I just gave up trying to get this guy to do his record.
Wow, that’s crazy!
But you know, a lot of people have that. There’s a fear of finishing, tied into the fear of death, because once you finish something then you actually move into a new chapter. There’s something very sexy about being what I call an “armchair artist,” which is that you sit at home and people tell you you’re a genius and how good you are – and you aren’t out there. Because once you get out there, you know what happens? People on YouTube say you suck, or Perez Hilton doesn’t like your single… something like that, and you really have to get busy. I had to practice what I preach and just get out there, good or bad, and of course, the record could be different and better.
What was really important to me was [for listeners] to be able to look at the lyrics, so I physically printed up CDs. There’s a store in Union Square, Jivamukti that’s selling it and every time they get stock it sells out. It’s sold out three times, they’re already on their third shipment, and it’s humbling that that keeps happening. Even on Amazon and iTunes it’s gotten, so far, nothing but five star reviews. Granted, a lot of those are from my friends but some of them are people I don’t even know. What’s humbling to me is that it was done from a very non-commercial, pure place, where I just wanted to do a record of whatever, the most amusing or bizarre or funny things, and that people are really responding to it. That’s really wonderful.
And you mentioned that this project is your way of “giving back” also…
Yes. You know, I produce a lot of different, independent and developing artists. I’m also teaching a songwriting class at NYU School of Continuing Education. So, I’m using the process of promoting my own album to build a package template to help other artists. I’m learning about sending out the music to film and TV libraries that pitch for placements on soundtracks. I’m developing relationships with people like you and I’m going to take the entire thing that I’ve learned from marketing and promotion, and develop something that I can give out to other people. That way, when they finish their records and they have to face the terrifying prospect of “what now” – like, “How do I get people to hear it?” – I can hand them something that will be useful to them. The process isn’t so selfish and about me when it’s more of a path that I’m cutting through the forest to serve other people as well. To me, that’s very exciting, because I already have a life that I’m happy with and enjoying, and I want to bring happiness and joy to other people.
Larry Dvoskin: http://www.larrydvoskin.com