An interview with
Joseph Byrd

By Beppe Colli
Aug. 26, 2004

The following interview with Joseph Byrd - composer, arranger, multi-instrumentalist, sound designer and so on - is maybe the one for which I am the happiest on a personal level. Which could be of no importance for the reader, save for the fact that Joseph Byrd was the principal motivator behind two (rightly) celebrated albums (though - alas! - by a minority): The United States Of America, by the group of the same name; and The American Metaphysical Circus. Two albums that are reason enough for him to be featured in many Rock Encyclopedias. In fact, the only albums mentioned in one of those miscellaneous retrospectives typical of certain UK magazines. There had been more albums: two LPs of (analogue) synthesis, applied to (mostly) traditional materials: A Christmas Yet To Come (1975) and Yankee Transcendoodle (1976), both on Takoma; and co-production and arrangement work on Ry Cooder's Jazz (1978). Then?

For many years I wondered where Byrd was. Given his academic background, it was easy for me to picture him teaching in some college, maybe in California. I tried to find him, but nothing came out of it. My heart sank the day I received (due to a mistake!) a copy of Richie Unterberger's book, Unknown Legends Of Rock 'n' Roll (1998): yes, it featured a chapter on The United States Of America; but only Dorothy Moskowitz, the singer; and David Rubinson, the producer of the first album, were interviewed. They talked about Byrd, but only in the past tense.

So the reader can well imagine my expression when, while reading (web-only) Salon magazine I saw an article by Damien Cave titled Musician To Napster Judge: Let My Music Go (April 23, 2002), which talked about a 1960s-era recording artist, Joseph Byrd, now teaching music history at the College of the Redwoods in Northern California! A few seconds later I had already sent a letter to Damien Cave. After a few days I received a reply from Byrd.

The following conversation took place by e-mail during the first week of August.

As a first question, I'd like to ask you about the way you perceived the "rock scene" in 1967 - 1967, of course, being the year that's conventionally considered as the year when rock became stylistically more open to both "outside" and "highbrow" influences. Loosely speaking, think about The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Frank Zappa, Cream and English "outside" groups such as Pink Floyd and Traffic. Even a group like The Doors seemed to integrate many stylistical strands into their music. Did you perceive your work as (loosely speaking) being a part of that scenery? What were your conscious goals in establishing a group like The United States Of America?

Sgt. Pepper influenced everybody, and indeed was one of the arguments I used to keep the band on track (on my track, of course). Zappa was not nearly so influential, whatever his fans would like to think. In those early days he was mostly into being raunchy and offensive, so the band (during the brief time that it was still a "band" as opposed to the later stuff, which was different ensembles) didn't get much play. On the other hand, his broad brand of satire was more accessible than my more insidious (or so I like to think) kind.

I never met any of those people, although I certainly heard their music. If they influenced me, it was subconscious. I've already named the groups I was aware of emulating: The Airplane, The Fish (Country Joe), and Blue Cheer; there was an interesting though obscure group called The Great Society (Grace Slick with her then husband Darby) that influenced me, and I loved The Red Crayola, although without actually trying to take stuff from them.

I was pretty deliberate about exploring new territory. No, there was no "school" in which we considered ourselves. As I've said elsewhere, I regarded the avant garde art community as my peer group.

I'd like to ask you a question about the first track of the album, The American Metaphysical Circus - and since I am not really conversant with the American musical heritage I'm afraid there will be more questions like this. Would you mind identifying the musical motives that are featured at the beginning and at the end of this piece? As a compositional gesture, the "moving orchestras" remind me of Charles Ives. But why those particular pieces?

Without going back and listening, I believe the sources are (more or less in order) National Emblem (an early 20th Century march, which I played on calliope), At A Georgia Camp Meeting (a "coon song," and early ragtime piece), The Red, White, and Blue (a patriotic song, also known as Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean), and Marching Through Georgia (a post-Civil war song by Henry Clay Work). That's four. If you find another tune, let me know, and I'll listen and report back.

Yes, of course, the Ives tribute, but also to establish that we were firmly in the American tradition of artistic and political radicalism intermixed with patriotism, and to thus establish a psychic "distance" from The Beatles.

The specific pieces? Well, I'd done a Civil War album for Time-Life, and was very comfortable in the style of bands and circuses and saloon music... otherwise, they were totally personal choices. I actually arranged and conducted all the band pieces, doing the ragtime piano in 2 takes, because as an accordionist, I've never been able to play much left-hand piano. The calliope is very accordionist-friendly (there's one in Humboldt County that I play a couple times a year), so I could get away with a simple toot-toot octave left hand.

I've always liked the fact that - though it's very often multi-layered - the recorded material never sounds "cluttered" - in this specific sense the album reminds me a lot of The Beatles or of Strange Days, the second album by The Doors (and their first on eight-track). I assume you had to do quite a lot of pre-mixing. Would you mind talking about this?

I appreciate your citing the uncluttered quality, because it was something very much in my mind. I'd studied with and conducted Cage and Feldman (as well as Mauricio Kagel and Sylvano Bussotti), for one thing. For another, I thought the "wall of sound" approach was awful, ending up with a mush that had neither majesty nor focus. And that's where The Beach Boys were headed. Indeed, that's where The Beatles might have gone without George Martin's firm hand. This is not to say that I think we were better than either band.

Interestingly enough, in the next album I proceeded to "over-produce" myself, and had many textures that sound too dense to allow the music to sing. A very clear example is the unreleased USofA You Can't Ever Come Down in comparison to the one I did for Columbia Masterworks. The former is clean and terse, the latter dense and flabby. I learned some hard lessons there, one of which is that it is usually a mistake to produce yourself. Of course, by the time I had half a dozen albums under my belt, it was impossible to find someone sufficiently experienced, so I produced everything. A good example of a clean production is the album I wrote and produced for Ry Cooder - you can see that I'd learned my lesson.

Some things on the album - the first part of I Won't Leave My Wooden Wife For You, Sugar being the obvious example - remind me quite a bit of Frank Zappa. Wrong?

Many people have made the comparison, so you're not wrong. But in terms of my copying him, yes, totally wrong. I didn't like what he was doing at all - it sounded sloppy and thrown-together to me, and the sentiments were juvenile, potty-mouthed, and simplistic. Zappa chose easy targets, I thought; I was taking on the entire culture. Again, this isn't a critical survey of the man's work, just what I saw at the time. He didn't think much of me either, by the way.

A propos of which: How come the new release doesn't have any lyrics? They had been included in the previous CD edition...

I had less than 1% input into the Sundazed re-release, and that's more than I'm getting in royalties! They did email me, and asked if I'd be interested in doing notes, and I figured this was a chance to get my voice heard - Dorothy and Rubinson had both done extensive interviews referring to me in unpleasant fashion (as justification for their coup, I imagine). I asked for $300 and got it. I've written elsewhere to you that Sundazed took out all references they found controversial, including one about Bill Graham.

But I wasn't asked about anything they did, and indeed have never seen many of the photos before.

Again, about I Won't Leave My Wooden Wife For You, Sugar: There is an uncredited wind section at the end of the piece, playing...

Precious Lord is what I titled it. Years later, I came across that exact tune in a Japanese Methodist hymnal. What every composer dreads! It's the same tune as Gospel Music For Abraham Ruddell Byrd in the next album. So I plagiarized it twice!

Listening to the album again, I thought that something in the track Coming Down reminded me of some "California music" of the period - the drums/tambourine combination reminds me of something Hal Blaine could have played in those days. Your opinion?

I am so pleased you noticed. I later worked with Hal Blaine (in fact I have a very interesting recording with Blaine on the West Coast and Bernard Purdie on the East), but he was the Gold Standard of rock drums, and I worked with Craig Woodson on capturing it. Craig is the guy UNCUT thought was me.

I've read in your liner notes that when playing live the group played from written scores on stands. Why not memorize the parts? (Just a personal curiosity.)

No time, no time! We had the parts memorized pretty much by the time we did the East Coast "tour," but we had in fact played stuff in our first gig at The Ash Grove that was first rehearsed that afternoon, so we did have stands.

The whole album sports a strong "collage" element. Do you consider this compositional strategy to have the same "meaning" when applied today?

I wanted to integrate the electronics and the tapes into live performance. (And if you read Barry Hansen's review of the band, you'll see that everything on the LP we actually did in performance.) It was part of my idea that we were not just a band, but an avant-garde event. There were other aspects of performance art in our performances too, that changed from one venue to the next.

That said, I don't find so much collage in American music, but it does seem to have taken hold in the British bands I've cited - Portishead, Broadcast, and Radiohead, and if that's my influence, I'm delighted.

If I'm not mistaken, you were schooled in both electronic and concrete music. Do you think that - though there have been practical and theoretical advances in synthesis (for instance, physical modeling) - nowadays sampling is the only game in town?

I think a lot is lost in sampling. For rare instances when you want a tunable sound effect, or to edit 34 seconds down to 30, it's a godsend, but it seems to contribute to "aural clutter," and that's not good.

I also think much has been lost with the demise of analog synthesis: for example, I was in a studio not long ago and the composer played a sound, and I said, "That might be really effective if you modulated the high partials with a reversed sawtooth wave," and oops, he couldn't do it. (And that's a really primitive thing to do.) So digital has meant giving up control of artistic decisions to corporations like Yamaha. Where by this point in history we should have infinite options, we actually have fewer!

There! You've succeeded in baiting me, so I sound like an old fogey. I hope you're happy now.

Do you think there's still an "avant-garde" today?

Somewhere there will always be someone doing something that challenges mainstream thinking. Taking chances is risky, however. So to get artists who can continue to work on the edge, doing art that doesn't support them, they have to be rich, like Yoko, or ascetic, like Cage. That does tend to change the equation. I left that world because I was 30, and it was time for me to make a living. (That said, I lived in poverty for over a decade.)

If you don't mind, I'd like to ask you a few questions about your second album, The American Metaphysical Circus. Lest I forget: Who's the uncredited bass player?

Harvey Newmark. I don't know why he isn't credited. He's become a brilliant player, and has recorded, with David Sherr's ensemble, some of the most exciting music I've heard recently.

I have to confess that - though I like the USoA album a great deal - I like the second album just as much, if not more. I think that not having a fixed palette - a specific group - made it possible for you to have more timbral variety. (But I suspect you don't agree.)

Well, I wish I'd had more money, better resources to work with (I regret the lead singers, myself included), and more time to write songs, and a collaborator to write them with. As I've said elsewhere, Dorothy was not innovative, but she had a sense of style, and a fluent muse, so she would immediately get the sense of a song and suggest the direction it could go.

The different palette would have been more effective if the band had been a coherent pole, I think. I mean, as a center to play away from. As it was, there really was no band, just Harvey, Pot, Ted Greene, and some studio musicians.

No, I'm not sorry about anything I wrote, but if I could have afforded real studio singers on The Sing-Along Song... It was supposed to sound like The Roger Wagner Chorale.

What's "Pelog" - the name of a scale?

Yes, one of the two basic gamelan scales.

Again, about my lack of knowledge of those sources: In the song called Patriot's Lullaby at a certain point it seems there's a record playing in the background - like a choir singing... what? (America The Beautiful?)

Good ear, Beppe! That's what they're singing, only I altered it slightly to fit the harmony of the song. I may have changed the words a little too.

The album was dedicated to Ruddell Byrd - but the dedication on the CD release is incomplete. Why?

My younger brother, now a beloved physician in Tucson. He was a Vietnam War protester who was in prison at the time the album was released. I have had no dealings with the company, and they do whatever they like.

Could you please elaborate about the track called Leisure World? I suspect it to be based on a motif that I've never heard before.

The commercial jingle is set to the tune of Auld Lang Syne, the sentimental Scottish folk song about remembrance of good times. It's customarily sung on New Year's Eve. Leisure World ( (which I regarded as a horror) was the first retirement community, a place in which no one could live who wasn't over 55. There are now thousands of them, which I at the age of 66, think just as dreadful as I did then: a cruise ship for people who've abandoned real life.

Let's talk about business, would you? How come that after that second album there was no more?

Well, there was certainly no demand from Columbia! Who do you think might have put out an album? My "angel" for that one was John McClure, a very bright and very kind man, who offered it to me on his division, which was Masterworks, the classical division of Columbia. Interestingly, it sold very well for a "classical" album, and is the only "rock" album ever so released. It was in the catalog for over 15 years!

I've read somewhere that you were involved with talking toys for Mattel and with creating sound effects for a character in Star Wars?

I did anything that paid, and Mattel was one of my clients. The Star Wars story is too long to tell here.

I bought your two albums on Takoma way back then. Would you please clarify for me your musical intention when recording that material?

There are actually 3, the last being a historical album of sentimental songs from the mid-19th Century.

Takoma approached me about doing an imitative synthesizer Christmas album in 1974, saying they couldn't pay, but it would make royalties. I had very primitive equipment, but I was working with Don Buchla at the time, and you'll recall that I got Tom Oberheim started in the electronic sound business, so I borrowed and begged some modules and recorded that album, following it up in 1976 with one of patriotic songs. By the latter LP I had gotten better at it, but I would never have the kind of equipment Walter Carlos had, nor would I get more than a 4-track quarter-inch recorder.

Earlier you referred to a recording you did with Hal Blaine and Bernard Purdie. Would you mind elaborating?

In my earliest work in radio, I was still very avant-garde minded; in fact some of my most interesting work is radio commercials. Until I began getting a reputation as a non-conformist, which is not what the agencies want from their suppliers.

I was bi-coastal in those days, and I quickly realized that I could hire big-name musicians for the same money, because commercials - which pay residuals - were better than LPs. So when I needed a drummer, I got Hal Blaine in LA and Bernard Purdie in NY. The piece I'm talking about was something I did as a "novelty" for The Great American Radio Show, a broadcasters convention in Manhattan, celebrating 50 years of radio advertising. I did a number of odd pieces for that, including my "Radio Cantata," a Handelian homophony on

Glory to the unseen voice
That changed the world in fifty years,
That makes the Great Unclean rejoice,
And sells them soap to wash their ears.

followed by a fugue on

Glory be to radio!

But back to my story. I wrote a drum part to a non-existent rock instrumental, then made a click track. This wasn't that unusual, since it was the early days of 8-track 1-inch multi-tracking. The part had pauses, a solo fill, and a conclusion. I then played the click for both drummers independently, having them record their parts, neither one hearing the other. It's a great contrast of loose West Coast style in perfect sync with tight New York style. Despite that, it sounds great. Hal and Pretty never heard it played together.

If I'm not mistaken you teach a course in songwriting. What's your perspective on the way personal, elaborate melodies and intricate chordal movement seem to have given way to the lowest common denominator as the consciously pursued ideal? Do you see any clear trend(s)? (I think Paul Zollo has written quite interesting things in his anthology titled Songwriters On Songwriting.)

I personally don't miss the "personal, elaborate, and intricate." Laura Nyro and Stevie Wonder weren't my heroes. I didn't like most people in the 70s, although my ex turned me on to the lyric facility of Cat Stevens, and I thought that was charming, very accessible. I have great respect for Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell, but they are very atypical songwriters, and I certainly don't think other songwriters should be learning from what they did. Elliot Smith was in that mold too. It's a solipsistic loop. As a recovering narcissist, I recognize the syndrome, and I don't think it's one bit romantic.

Let me mention some current songwriters, and maybe that will lead to what I find hopeful and discouraging in today's songs. My favorites this month are Tom Waits, Eleni Mandell, and Nellie McKay, and none of them are in the Simon/Mitchell mold.

Waits has come a long way. He started more obscure and poet-like, but has gotten accessible and "real" with age. The opposite of Bob Dylan, who was the most important songwriter of the 60s (and that's a definitive decade), but has become a cartoon of himself. Waits is how Dylan should have turned out. Let me give you a verse of his:

In a land there's a town,
and in that town there's a house
And in that house there's a woman
And in that woman there's a heart I love
I'm gonna take it with me when I go.

It takes a lot of living life to be capable of a lyric that direct, to eliminate all the craft and all the extra shit, and get right down to it.

Eleni Mandell is a struggling writer, just barely making it, having to tour with a single bass player (can't afford a band), because she doesn't write hit singles, she's not cute, and she doesn't have a record contract. But she too writes intense, and sometimes mad, lyrics:

When it rains I throw up my windows
On a cold, dark day I run in the street
I'm OK when the howling wind blows
Yes, it's alright with me

When it's hot like the devil laughing "Ha!"
I will pull on my hat and coat and see
That I'm always happy keeping up
With the man just a step ahead of me

He thinks he's in love with this girl
But I know that he can't be in love with her
He's in love with me

Nellie McKay is a phenomenon, a media-perfect babe: 19, gorgeous, with a sarcastic streak, and a wicked mouth. Naturally Sony glommed onto her, and gave her Geoff Emerick, the Beatles' engineer, to produce her first album. I don't care. She's brilliant. And even though I advise people to stay away from preaching, from "messages," from wearing your political heart on your sleeve, she can get away with it:

I feel bad
not bad enough really
I feel angry and upset
I could write you a small check
look I wish you luck
and here's your buck
it's just that I'm a yuppie fuck
yes indeed I am

OK, if these are signs of what is hopeful in songwriting, what do they have in common? First, they're vernacular. Second, they say something, they aren't just about finding a phrase to turn into a hook. Here for contrast are two "manufactured" pop songs (Avril Lavigne and Hilary Duff):

Is it enough to love, is it enough to breathe
Somebody rip my heart out and leave me here to bleed
Is it enough to die somebody save my life
I'd rather be anything but ordinary please


If it's over let it go and
Come tomorrow it will seem
So yesterday
So yesterday
I'm just a bird
That's already flown away

Nothing "real" there at all, and nothing that lasts longer than cotton candy. But I'm not fond of "message" stuff either, other than Randy Newman. (Actually, he was an influence of mine, only it was before anyone had heard him; a producer played me his demo of Simon Smith and So Long, Dad, which are not typical of his later songs.)

What I'm looking for are songs that resonate with the present and sound like someone actually said the words. Something that engenders reflection - and there are many ways to get there, but always the same destination. Something simple. Something that sits comfortably in its style, like a good pair of shoes. The shoes can be work boots, or spike heels, or two-tone spectator shoes (my three songwriters). Style has always been important to me. I think it is the van that delivers the donuts.

© Beppe Colli 2004 | Aug. 26, 2004