Photo by Karina Iohan                                

An interview with
Brian Woodbury

By Beppe Colli
June 11, 2004

As I recently wrote in my review of the album Variety Orchestra, it had been since 1992 - the year when I first listened to an album featuring vivacious and intelligent songs titled Brian Woodbury And His Popular Music Group - that I had lost all traces of Brian Woodbury, an artist whose music, so simple on first listening, revealed in time quite a complex compositional logic.

Having in my hands the newly-released CD Variety Orchestra was for me a double surprise: first, because I had found Woodbury again; then, because this new - and excellent - album featuring for the most part instrumental tracks was a big departure from the Woodbury I knew. A Web search confirmed to me that this was an artist with a varied background.

I thought of doing an interview. Woodbury kindly agreed, so we had an e-mail conversation between the end of May and the start of June. And here it is.

I've read that you started performing at the age of 11. Please, tell me about the way you started developing an interest for music.

In much the usual way, at 3 or 4 I started messing around with my parents' piano. I had the notion that if I put coins in between the cracks, it would play like a juke box or a player piano (which I had seen in an amusement park). My first experiments were attempts to evoke soldiers and angels (the low end versus the high end).

I was always fascinated with recordings of Mozart's Don Giovanni and The Beggar's Opera, as much for the swashbuckling swordplay as for anything else. When I was five I organized plays at school that involved swashbuckling heroes rescuing damsels in distress. I was always the hero.

The usual experience - the Beatles during grammar school; started writing songs on guitar at about 10 and performing a little later; listening to singer-songwriters in my early teens; progressive rock in high school; Zappa, Beefheart; modern classical; musical theater in college.

I know that you studied with Tom Lehrer. I've heard of him, but I've never heard his music. (I read an interview with him by Paul Zollo from 1990, one that Zollo later included in his Songwriters On Songwriting book collection.) Would you mind talking about Lehrer - and about how this experience was important for you?

Tom Lehrer was a revelation to me in high school. His songs had all the craft of the Broadway greats combined with an acerbic and almost subversive quality and none of the sentimentality (an attitude which as a teenager I really related to). Also he was a brilliant, but understated, pastiche artist.

I discovered to my delight that he taught at the college I went to (University of California Santa Cruz). His class was called Introduction to Musical Theater. One had to audition to get into it. So I got up the courage to sing a song of my own for the audition. It was a Johnny Cash satire that I had written in high school (Them Prison Gates are a-Tumblin' Down).

The class consisted of one week of studies, alternating with a week in which we would put together an abbreviated reading of a classic Broadway musical from each of the major eras (20s through the 60s). It was a terrific class.

During the class we got to know him well, and I started bringing him some of the songs I was writing, to get his advice about songwriting, particularly lyrics. Major influence on me, both before meeting him and after.

You've collaborated with Van Dyke Parks - who has expressed admiration for your work. Would you mind talking about this collaboration?

In 1983, my wife Elma Mayer and I were in a band called Some Philharmonic, something that had come together at music school inspired by punk rock, Parliament Funkadelic, Beefheart and Henry Cow. We found Van Dyke Parks's Song Cycle in a used record store. I already knew it and loved it, but the band hadn't. We went through an enormous phase of absorbing that album over many months.

Elma discovered that Van Dyke lived in Los Angeles. She looked his address up in the phone book and just decided to send him our LP. He got it and listened to it and called us up on the phone. When he first called my reaction was "bullshit." I thought someone was pulling our leg. You might as well have said, "It's Abraham Lincoln on the phone."

Later we moved to Los Angeles, Van Dyke tried to help us get a record deal, which never happened. But we are still in touch and I am a great admirer of his work. He has not received the recognition he deserves.

Has the recorded work of Brian Wilson been inspirational for you? By the way, Wilson recently brought his Pet Sounds and Smile projects to the stage for the first time. Did you have the chance to attend those concerts?

But of course, this is a big influence. I think I spent about half of 1985 and 1986 listening to Pet Sounds (the other half listening to Cupid and Psyche 1985 by Scritti Politti). I have not seen any of the concerts. I plan to if I get the opportunity.

When I first listened to your 1992 album of songs, Brian Woodbury And His Popular Music Group, I seemed to notice a lot of musical references being made (and: is it just my imagination, or do you really make a verbal joke about a song by Elton John in Dreamstate Of California?). It seems to me that this compositional strategy (i.e., referring, quoting, in music) is nowadays quite less common than in the past. Your opinion?

This is a very good question, and I think you are right. Yes, there is a reference to Your Song.

I made a conscious decision to avoid using references starting about 1995. I don't say never, but I think it can be a crutch. It is also possibly distancing emotionally. Not for every listener, but for a lot of people, humor takes the empathy. For me, I find humor in the face of tragedy enriching, but maybe I'm just perverse. Anyhow, I've limited the number of references for a while, particularly if the song is really trying to convey something sad or serious. If you are writing for a character who is not yourself, for instance in theater or children's television, the character shouldn't make a literary reference that he or she wouldn't get.

That notwithstanding, I read recently a new book has come out about Shakespeare, cataloging all the references he made to the pop songs of the day. Many lines in the plays refer to things that are hopelessly obscure, but were clever allusions in their day. So I figure if Shakespeare could do it, what the heck, lighten up.

I know you have a CD out called The Brian Woodbury Songbook, which I've never listened to. Is it aesthetically different from the Brian Woodbury And His Popular Music Group album?

A little more serious, less irreverent. Part of the reason I had other people sing these songs, is I didn't want people to think they were funny. A lot of time when I sing a song, people think it's funny, even if it's about somebody dying. I guess I have someone of a comic persona.

I'll send you one. You tell me.

In the booklet cover of your recent album Variety Orchestra you mention the names of Carla Bley, Oregon, Henry Threadgill and Fred Frith as musicians being inspirational for you. Would you mind talking about this?

Until I wrote this music, I had been a songwriter, and never written instrumentals. I'm not much of an instrumentalist myself, although I do play guitar and bass, but I admire great instrumentalists, and there was a huge amount of talent where I was living in the downtown New York scene in the late 1980s, experimental jazz, etc. Since I'm not a great player, I don't improvise much, and I tend to think more compositionally.

So as far as inspiration, I speak mostly of Fred Frith as a composer, though he is a phenomenal improviser. His Gravity and Speechless albums really opened up worlds for me.

Oregon (I forgot I mentioned them) again were amazing group improvisers and I really dug that about them. And my bandmates and I used to do some extended improvisation (never live), inspired by their approach. But I guess for the record, they were an inspiration in terms of creating a unique ensemble with a new palette.

Henry Threadgill I just think is great, and iconoclastic.

I think the CD actually is closest in spirit and sound to Carla Bley, whom I first saw in 1980 in a little bar in San Francisco. I sent her a demo tape and she wrote nice things back.

You've also written for theater, dance and television, and I know you're a principal songwriter for Jim Henson’s Bear In The Big Blue House. Please, talk about the different requirements this dimension needs when compared to the other - is the word "stand-alone" ok? - kind of songwriting.

Well, for the TV shows I wrote for, many of the songs were character songs, in that they took place in a scene and were sung by a particular character. So they were essentially theater songs. Theater songs you try to get the voice of a character and the mood of the scene into song. Is the person getting excited, calming himself down, motivating himself to take a decisive action. It's all rather corny and formulaic if you look at it in one way, but it's universal and profound. I'm a big sucker for it.

Most of the other TV songs were more general and full of gentle admonitions or revelations, sung in an avuncular way. Since I often write that kind of song, it was right up my alley.

I've seen that an old LP of yours from 1987, All White People Look Alike, has recently been re-released on CD. I've seen the title track being described as "a musical manifesto on race, conformity and (pre-internet) mass culture". Would you mind elaborating?

I'll send it to you. You just have to hear it. It's 20-minutes long, with many sections but no breaks in between, each goes seamlessly into the next. It ends with a long crescendo under a spoken word rant that talks about race and culture and many other things.

In a few Internet Forums I've read some threads about musicians of the late 60s/early 70s reacting to the Vietnam War and the sociopolitical turmoil of that era, while nowadays there's not much activity going on. I know it's a very complex matter, but what's your take on this?

I think probably there is just as much political music as there was in that era. I think most of it is kind of marginalized by being un-inspired and by being associated with un-inspired music. There's a lot of well-meaning but poorly crafted and just not very catchy political stuff. People find other ways of expressing those things. Also, it alienates lots of listeners. Particularly in the US.

But that said, there is an amazing amount of social commentary in hip hop and country music. I mean, country music has become quite adept at really political propaganda. 90% of it is right-wing. But I see room for left-wing propaganda in country too. It's something I am working on. I just wrote a country song called My Country. It is about the things I admire about my political heritage. In answer to the narrow bigotry that is starting to propagate from country radio.

Hip hop is full of commentary, very specific cultural stuff, usually African-American specifically. And a lot of it is bullshit, as far as I am concerned - a very crass view of human nature, and therefore, a narrow view. But it is very vibrant.

Why hasn't someone come out with a song, US out of Iraq? I don't know.

I guess there is something embarrassing about being so "on the nose". Pop songwriters struggle to make something that is of the moment but also in some way universal. There has to be a twist of some kind.

Good question.

© Beppe Colli 2004 | June 11, 2004