An interview with
David Garland

By Beppe Colli
Jan. 10, 2004

On The Other Side Of The Window, David Garland's new CD, is a work of many qualities - a meticulous approach, music which definitely repays repeated listening, careful attention to timbre and sound, song lyrics that are never banal. It's a CD that needs a degree of attention that's maybe not very common these days in order to be fully appreciated (but isn't it true of all the records of songs that are worth something?) but which can work as a charm when used as "intelligent background" (what a waste, though).

So I thought that asking him a few questions (via e-mail) was a good idea. He kindly agreed.

The first thing I noticed when listening to your CD was how "natural" it sounded - I mean, not the overcompressed, squashed, no-dynamics, fatiguing sound that's currently the norm. Would you mind talking about this aspect of your work?

In addition to the singing, every sound on the album is a real - usually acoustic - instrument played by hand. If it sounds like a piano, it IS a piano. Most instruments were recorded with a pair of stereo mics, so they have a vivid, real-world sound image. I wanted the music to have a natural, human quality. I used an old synthesizer only on Good Design and Out Here, where it's used for its electronic sound; I wasn't interested in using the synthesizer to imitate other instruments. When I put my music together I don't accept any assumptions about how it "should" be done; I question everything. That doesn't mean that I reject everything - after all, I do use melodies, rhythms, and harmonies - but I question it all, and try to avoid cliches of style, sound, and form. That makes it interesting for me to create the music, and I hope it makes it interesting to listen to, too. I'm well aware of current trends in music, but I choose to invent rather than imitate, because inventing is more fun.

You used quite a few unusual instruments - I had to look in the dictionary to find out what a "psaltery" was, but I'm really in the dark about the "Taliesen quartzite"...

I'm very interested in the possibilities of orchestration, and I have quite a few instruments. "Psaltery" is actually a rather generalized term, almost like "stringed instrument," because there are so many different styles of psaltery. I'm surprised to realize that I've had my bowed psaltery (which was made for me by a friend) for at least 30 years! The origin of the Taliesin quartzite is interesting: the great early-modernist architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed and built a studio/school, "Taliesin," in the western state of Arizona. The landscape there is the one you see in many old cowboy movies: cacti, desert plains, dramatic hills. I visited there recently, and took a tour of the surrounding desert. As I walked around I noticed that the ground was covered with pieces of rock that made very musical, bell-like sounds underfoot. I was told it was a unique kind of quartzite, known as Taliesin quartzite - found only in that place. There's something about the rock that makes it very resonant. Striking it produces a clear musical tone. So I put a piece in my pocket and brought it home, and found that its musical note was in tune with the key of Good Design. That song began as the accompaniment I created for Sport Murphy's song Frogs Are Singing, released on his 2002 album Uncle. Later I expanded on the music and wrote my own words. Now, having that association to Frank Lloyd Wright in the song about design is very appropriate!

Again, about the instrumental side: your use of the bass guitar is quite unusual - arpeggiated parts, wha-wha pedals... what are your reference points in this respect?

A few years ago I bought an electric bass guitar so I could explore its possibilities. I'd played bass before, but didn't have my own. Again trying to avoid assumptions, I experimented with how the instrument could be played, and got interested in finger-picking - like a folk guitarist might - on the bass. I realized that even better would be to do that on an acoustic bass guitar - that's not the same thing as an acoustic upright bass, it's a big acoustic guitar strung and fretted like a bass. I love the sound of it, and I used it a lot on the new CD. The bass guitar with fuzz and wah-wah is a sound that shows up on several songs, too. I deliberately used it as a unifying, recurring sound. It's also a sound I love, and it's rich in references for me: early Soft Machine, and some wonderful old Charlie Haden recordings, in particular one he made with Keith Jarrett, on an album I think was called Birth, released on Atlantic in the early '70s.

Your duo with Karen Mantler in the song How To is really beautiful. How did it come into being?

I got to know Karen a few years ago, after having her as a guest on my radio show. I think her songs are great - really good and really inventive, and her voice and harmonica are so distinctive. She told me that she has a project just for fun in which she plays harmonica and ukulele duets with Kato Hideki. One night I sat at the piano, wondering what might sound nice played by harmonica and ukulele, and How To began to emerge. I felt like I had discovered some rich possibilities - for example, I'd never before made the dominant chord minor when writing in a major key - and it seemed the song deserved to be kind of a big piece on an ambitious scale, to do justice to those possibilities. I was thinking of her harmonica playing and singing voice right from the start. It took over a year to finish it. September 11, 2001 happened very soon after I started, and it was a while before I could continue. Then a nice interruption came when Robert Wyatt invited Karen to England for their duets on Wyatt's Cuckooland CD. I got to know Carla Bley's Escalator Over the Hill in about 1973, and it was a real ear-opener. It's fun to think that Karen (Carla Bley's daughter), who sang on Escalator when she was just a little kid, forms a little connection between that great recording and my project.

Your lyrics cover quite a range of topics, which I think is pretty uncommon these days - I mean, when it comes to subject matter what's on the charts/on the air now seems much more limited than in the '60s/'70s. What's your opinion?

Many years ago I read an essay by composer Charles Ives in which he asked something like, "Why can't a song climb a mountain and look at new landscapes?" (My wording, not his.) I've always thought that lyrics could be about anything. Of course, they're more meaningful if they're about something important, but love, feeling blue, and wanting to dance aren't the only important things. I made three CDs of what I called Control Songs, because I think the (mainly illusory) sense of control we all need to function, and which we can all feel some ambivalence about, is a very important, fundamental force in our lives, though it's rarely talked about - let alone sung about! The album On the Other Side of the Window is mostly about communication rather than control. The lyrics of the new songs came quite naturally. Sometimes I let them come, sometimes I helped them come. For the most part the music is carefully worked out, and the words are relatively spontaneous. I don't mean they're improvised, I mean I didn't want to do much analytical editing of them.

If I understand correctly, you are on the air in New York City with two radio programs, Spinning On Air and Evening Music. Would you mind talking about them?

I make my living by programming and presenting 20 hours of music each week. The shows are on WNYC-FM, New York Public Radio. WNYC is at 93.9 in the FM dial in the NYC area, and it can be heard internationally at Evening Music is basically a classical music show, but I try to make it inclusive and interesting. Spinning On Air investigates the meeting points of Art and Pop, and I've been doing that show for over 20 years now. Guests have included John Zorn (many times), Jim O'Rourke, Les Baxter, Karen Mantler of course, Robert Wyatt, and lots of others. There's lots more detail here:

Re: the state of radio. What's your take on the current state of radio? And: do you think the visual dimension that's been common for the last twenty years has had an effect on the appreciation of music?

As I'm sure you know, radio is getting less creative and varied, and it's becoming more formulaic. I choose the music I present on my shows, and that makes me an anachronism. It's very easy to be pessimistic about radio trends, and sometimes I worry about WNYC's future, too. But I think there's a reason for hope because of what I call the new "super-availability" of music. People who want to hear music now have a growing number of alternatives to broadcast radio, with downloads, webradio, and satellite radio. They no longer need broadcast radio when they want a certain format of background music. So maybe there will be revived interest in the unique, personalized, community-building possibilities of broadcast radio. With the super-availability of music, the DJ's role as guide and curator is more important than ever. But maybe I'm just naive, and individuality will continue to be minimized.

Regarding your question about the effect of music videos: I'm not a good person to judge. Surely the effect of locking a certain series of images to a piece of music is limiting to both the images and the music, but I have very little experience of it. I'm old enough (49) that MTV didn't exist when I grew up, and most videos I've happened to see are essentially just advertising, even when they try to be artistic. With my art school background you might think I'd want images with my music, but I've kept my visual and musical work mostly separate, so far.

About ten years ago, you released a CD titled I Guess I Just Wasn't Made For These Times, which featured your arrangements of songs by Brian Wilson. Would you mind talking about his importance for you from a compositional perspective? And: how do you regard his new status when it comes to critics/audience appreciation, after a period when he was considered "passé"?

I remember reading about the "genius" of Brian Wilson in Crawdaddy and Rolling Stone magazines when I was a kid in the late '60s, but I could never reconcile that with the surfing and car songs I was familiar with. I finally really listened to Smiley Smile in the mid '80s, and after that I gradually accumulated Beach Boys LPs, finding that each had a few fantastically creative songs on them. I recognized that Wilson was being very original with all aspects of the songs. When you first hear a song like I Just Wasn't Made For These Times you just respond to its beautiful mood and feeling, but when you take it apart to learn to play it, you realize it's a weird, peculiar, totally original song, with strange chords, unusual bass notes, and much more. I love the way he could create music that was almost secretly experimental, in that the experimental qualities actually serve the song's communicativeness. When my son was born in 1988 I knew I'd be too busy to create and record a new bunch of original songs, but it would be a good time to take some of my favorite Brian Wilson songs, transcribe and analyze them to find out what made them so good, and create my own arrangements. I thought that the songs deserved to be more widely performed, that they were adaptable to interpretation, and didn't necessarily require the Beach Boys' sound. (There's some talk of issuing my recording in Europe, but plans aren't settled yet.) Regarding your question about Wilson's "new status": of course I think it's great that more people are enjoying the beauty of Pet Sounds. It really is a wonderful work of art. However, I do hear covers of Wilson's songs that show the performers aren't really perceiving the complexities of the songs, or aren't up to realizing them. But the original recordings are much more available now than when I got interested, and the layers are there for anyone to investigate.

© Beppe Colli 2004 | Jan. 10, 2004