Thursday, 25 July 2013

EXCLUSIVE: Jack Lancaster interview

Two and a half thousand years ago Lao Tzu said "The More we see, the less we know", and it is a truism of which I am reminded every day. Once upon a time I used to bluff my way through life, but as I get older I don't bother any more. If I don't know the answer to something I say so.

The other morning I got an email from the lovely Anne-Marie at Gonzo asking me to write the sales notes for an album called Wild Connections. There was one small problem. Although I knew who Jack Lancaster (the legendary producer who also played with Blodwyn Pig and Mick Farren amongst others) I had no idea what the album was like. So there was only one thing that I could do - I telephoned the man himself and asked him...

JON: Tell me about ‘Wild Connections’.  

JACK: You haven’t even heard it? 

JON: I don’t know anything about it.

JACK: It’s actually a fairly peculiar experimental album really. It’s just – do you know Barry Morgan? Barry Morgan is the drummer out of Blue Mink and he had his own studios in London so it was me, Barry and Rick van der Linden, the Dutch keyboard player.  It was an experimental album because it was completely synthesised, except for the drums of course.  Rick and I wrote the stuff in Holland. We went to his house near Hilversum and wrote it there. But, you know who Rick is?

JON: Wasn’t he in Focus at one point?

JACK: He did play with Focus yes.

JON: That’s where I know him from.

JACK: I don’t think he was a regular guy in the band though.

JON: There was a friend of mine when I was a kid about 15/16 who was an enormous Focus fan and so I spent many happy hours smoking suspiciously long cigarettes and poring over the notes on the back of Focus albums. That’s where I know the name from.

JACK: Yeah right, with …. How I met Rick actually, I was over there actually producing a band that Phonogram in HilversumKayak - and Rick was doing a session for them, and he had a GX-1.  A GX-1 was like a Yamaha keyboard that Keith Emerson was the only other guy I knew with one.  It was like a Yamaha keyboard was like three manuals – three keyboard manuals - foot pedals and I guess it was FM synthesis, this whole thing; it was massive and he had speakers with it, and everything and it looked a bit like a Wurlitzer organ or something. But it was in fact a synthesiser, and so the whole album is done on that … on the GX-1.  It was FM sequence if you know what that is – frequency modulation.  

So it was almost like a forerunner for the DX7, and so Rick and I wrote a bunch of stuff for that, and the lyricon … I was on lyricon, I didn’t play any horns at all. And it a was wind control synthesiser thing, but an early one that was completely analogue. And I was triggering mini  Moogs and playing parallel chords and stuff on a harp with it as well.  Now Rick was a kind of rock player with a baroque background. I know that sounds peculiar.

JON: It sounds very interesting.

JACK: So there is a lot of baroque and rock and roll.

JON: I’m going to pinch that line if I may

JACK: Ok. So I was configuring the synth with the wind control and he was doing that and we did all these arrangements based around that. Then we put like a 20 piece choir on some of the stuff – not all of it – which was the English Chorale – you must have heard of them. They do the LSO stuff as well.  With Barry Morgan on drums. We didn’t have a bass player because Rick was a really heavily schooled organist and when he was a little kid he played in cathedrals in Amsterdam and all over the place when he was a kid so he was very good at playing foot pedals. And he developed a style where he was able to play some really funky stuff on the foot pedals while he was playing these three keyboard manuals. So the whole thing was based on that really.

JON: So how did you decide … how did the project come about?

JACK: It came about just with Rick and I chatting.  And then going to … Chris Yule,  a friend of mine had just left Stigwoods - he was the head of Stigwoods Music Department and he was  starting his own record company - and he said that he was interested in it as an experimental thing you know, because he was into experimental music. So he took it and it was distributed by Arista – this was the original version. And it’s all self-penned except for the ‘Carmina Burana’ thing that’s on it. What I mean by self-penned, I mean either Rick or I wrote the stuff.

JON: I am looking forward to hearing this.

JACK: You might find it a bit experimental and out of line, but..

JON: Well experimental is good as far as I am concerned.

JACK: It was really before synthesisers were catching on. I think it was ’75 or ’76, something like that. That’s why I am finding it a bit hard to recall exactly what we did. There was lots of synthesiser stuff around, but not played on wind instruments as well along with this outrageous synthesiser thing that he had.  I did send Rob at some point when he was asking for stuff for the cover of it, a picture of the GX-1 actually.  In fact if you go online you can find one, just type in Yamaha GX-1 so you can see what the thing looks like

JON: I had a DX7 so I know the sort of lineage of it.

JACK: So right you know what I am talking about because it was that kind of synthesis.  It was particularly strange because it had; you know those cassette things that you put in a DX7?  Those slot in things.  This thing was composed – you lifted the lid up and it was composed of rows of those things. The way to alter the sounds on them yourself was pretty peculiar because you had to use a screwdriver <laugh> There were no knobs.  You had to use a screwdriver to actually get into each individual one to mess with the sound.

JON: That’s just very odd. I want to get hold of one and play with it. That sounds wonderful.

JACK: What, the synthesiser?

JON: Yeah.

JACK: I am not sure whether there’s any around any more. Have a look at it online; if you type in Yamaha GX-1 it’s bound to come up, and there’s probably some really good pictures of it. You might find it on stuff about Rick as well on the stuff that he was doing.  He had a band called Ekseption as well. 

JON: I’ve heard  of that.

JACK: A Dutch band – well of course; he was Dutch wasn’t he? <laughs>

JON: What I was also going to ask you is about the ‘Peter and the Wolf’ project because I did the sales notes for that..

JACK: Oh, you did…It’s not out yet though is it?

JON: I don’t think so. I’ve got a copy, but I don’t think it’s out yet. I think it’s the end of the month.  I can’t remember. I can never remember release dates. But I get copies of things usually quite a long time before they come out.

JACK: I haven’t heard it yet.  Well obviously I’ve heard it, because I re-mastered the thing especially for Rob.

JON: You’ve got your own studio?

JACK: Yeah.  It’s all computers though. I haven’t got any analogue stuff … no that’s not true, I’ve got a rack of analogue stuff but that’s all sort of,   you know, analogue compressors and EQ and all that kind of stuff. Basically it’s all computers.  It’s all Macs.

JON: How did you come up with idea of re-doing ‘Peter and the Wolf’ which is one of those iconic pieces of music that has been re-done in so many different forms?

JACK: One thing that we did was actually re-write it.  Because I know there is some basic themes in there but we actually rewrote it because the chords to ‘Peter and the Wolf’, they weren’t sort of … the chord changes just didn’t work in a rock format, so that is why a lot of the stuff is re-written. It wasn’t just me, it was Robin as well, and I think what happened was originally there was a movie director actually, a guy called Hugh Raggett - who was one of the guys who did ‘The World at War’ series, and lots of other stuff as well - and he came up with the idea of doing some sort of cartoon thing, so I went to Stigwoods and they said yes that sounds like a really good idea so we did an album, and it was supposed to be animated and it never was.  Since then it has been. Some versions of it with animation are on YouTube I think.

JON: I always found the end of the story with the duck inside the wolf’s stomach – when I was a little boy I found that really disturbing. I was old enough to know what digestive juices do to stuff and the idea of the poor bloody duck being dissolved live – I like the way you change the story slightly so the duck came back.

JACK: <laughs>  it gets spewed out.

JON: Yeah, it was one of those things that really upset me when I was about six when I first heard it.

JACK: Yeah.

JON: So if I ever have grandchildren I’m going to play them your version and not the other one.

JACK: Oh good. <laughs>

JON: I didn’t know until I wrote the sales notes for it that it was originally a piece of Communist propaganda for the Young Communist Pioneer League.

JACK: Is that true?  I didn’t know that either.

JON: The character of Peter – he was supposed to be … the Young Communist Pioneers were basically Communist boy scouts and Peter was a Stalinist boy scout, which I didn’t know at all.

JACK: That puzzles me because I thought it was a Russian folktale that Prokofiev had taken and put music to it.

JON: He probably did – it was probably an original pre-existing story, but the original thing was a piece of propaganda for the young Communist Youth League.

JACK: So they used it as that…okay. It kind of makes sense. It’s a bit peculiar, but it makes sense. 

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