FB: We're here backstage in Berkeley, California with Michael Penn who just performed a set a couple hours ago and we are going to perform a chat with him for the next half an hour or so... will you introduce yourself?
Michael Penn: Hello I'm Michael Penn and I'm being digitized...
FB: I wanted to start by talking about the scoring you've done for a couple of films, you've done Heart Aches and Boogie nights, which is coming out in October. I wanted to start out, I was going to save this for last, but I wanted to start out, by asking about a particularly funny thing that I was told about the movie at the very end of the movie. Something happens, do you know what I'm talking about? Can you tell me about that, the final scene of the movie?
MP: The final scene in the movie is .. well I don't want to give it away is the problem, but suffice to say, that ... you get to see a big bright shining star.
FB: O.K. I guess that's teasing enough...How is it different scoring for movies vs. writing music for your own albums?
MP: Well, it's different in a lot of respects, I guess succinctly the main thing is that scoring for movies, I mean it's not like I've not done a lot of this, I've done two movies for the same film maker and he's a guy who trusted me and knew my work and felt that I would be good at it. Essentially you watch a movie and what you're seeing on screen in terms of visuals and in terms of the dialog becomes the lyrics and text of what you're trying to deal with emotionally on a musical level, and you try to find the things that will compliment it to the director's satisfaction as well as your own. In the case of Paul Thomas Anderson, he had basically constructed a temporary score to these films so I had a sort of a template to work from, and it was very clear from the test track that he had put together that he had wanted something very grand and sort of orchestral in this one part and he wants something sort of very small here, so I was able to take that and kind of go with my thing
FB: What is your writing process like for the songs you write for yourself?
MP: It varies a lot actually, inevitably I have tons of lyrics that I have laying around that I've been sort of fiddling with and a lot of melodic ideas that I've sort of been carrying around with me and sometimes you know a song will sort of blurt out, where the music and the lyrics are sort of one kind of cohesive thing. Usually it's trying to match some kind of lyrical idea to match with a musical idea or vice versa.
FB: So you don't just sit down and write the whole thing together?
MP: It does happen that way on occasion and it's quite rewarding when that does happen but that's sort of more rare.
FB: We had a lot of questions before this broadcast started about touring which you were talking about briefly, one person asked, "dear Mr. Penn, I love your music and lyrics, and I was wondering if you would be touring in Buffalo NY sometime this year, and thanks for the great music." Also we had someone who asked "if you are going to be stopping in Cincinnati during your next headline tour." What are your plans?
MP: Well as far as I know the general plan is that once I'm done with this tour this year with Sheryl and Wilco, was to do a small club tour, and my guess is that it'll be a short club tour in of the big cities and Cincinnati may be among them, I'm not sure that Buffalo will be, but then after that, there will undoubtedly be another tour where we might go into a lot of other areas like Upstate New York. A lot of it depends on how the record does and particularly in what areas the record is doing well and you know that all comes down to radio and well you know all that....
FB: About your videos, you had Paul Thomas Anderson direct one of you videos... how did that come about, and how is it different working with a movie director as opposed to a video director?
MP: Well, the first single that the label released off the first album was for a song called Try, and I was having a hard time trying to figure out what to do for a video for this song, and I was talking to Paul about it and he had always expressed a desire to do it, but I really didn't think that he would do it, that he would be able to because he was cutting Boogie Nights at the time. We started talking about the song apparently he knew a location in Los Angeles which is the longest hallway in North America, it's 3/4 of a mile long, and we went there together and kind of looked at the location and we walked it while a walkman was playing the song and it was just about the same length to walk it as the song. That kind of suggested an idea and it worked out great because the video is one continuous shot so there was no editing involved so we were able to do it all in one weekend. And that's what we did.
FB: Was it difficult having to do the whole thing in one continuous shot? Did you have people trying to mess with you, trying to crack you up so you'd have to go all the way back to the beginning of the hallway?
MP: Oh no, everyone was very professional on the set we had a lot of extras so there was a lot of choreography involved in getting everything right. We spent a lot of time sort of blocking everything out before we began shooting, so once we began shooting, it took I think 14 takes then we got it.
FB: That's not bad at all...
MP: No it worked out all right
FB: What's the process in making videos? Do you usually come up with the idea yourself, do you work with somebody saying "well this is how I envision this song" or how does that work?
MP: Well it's kind of a collaborative thing, I'm no film maker, so it's really like I try to sort of come up with some notion for me that connects with the song and doesn't put me the position of some geek actor who's like playing the part of something. So in some way it has to be a performance of the song, and with the one exception being the video I did off the last album for "A Long Way Down" which was done by The Brothers Quay who are these animators and surrealists who I just completely entrusted it to them because I was such a fan of their work that I knew that whatever they came up with would be great.
FB: You also did the Michael Pen hour on MTV and M-2, what was that all about?
MP: Oh that was just me sitting with Matt Pinfield they asked me to just come up with a list of videos that I liked and talk about one or two of them and play them. It was nice because I got to play videos that I had always enjoyed, and many of them had probably never shown up on M-TV...
FB: What were some of the quirkiest or strangest videos that you picked?
MP: Quirky? Well the quirkiest one was probably that Pixies video "Here Comes Your Man" where they just have their mouths open- which I just love. I can't remember the others from the list now so...
FB: We have a bunch more questions that have come in from some of our online readers/ listeners, whatever it is they are doing.. Steve McKay asks what sort of music do you listen to, is it quite different from the sort of stuff that you are doing? And thanks for putting our such incredible music.
MP: Well, thanks Steve. I listen to a lot of stuff, a lot of it is very different from what I do. It's hard, I'm never really any good at sort of just remembering like the things that are recently in my CD player. In terms of recent stuff, I really love the Radiohead record, that's a really terrific record. I love Aimee Mann's last album I think that's a wonderful album. I like Wilco's record a lot, I like Sheryl's record, God what else?
FB: OK I'm going to put you on the spot just a little bit here. This is a question from when I was growing up from the radio station, they would always ask the guest they had this question- if you were on a desert island, if you had, well it would be a CD player now, if you had to choose 3 albums what would they be?
MP: All right, don't hold me to this, O.K. should I ever get trapped on a dessert island I would say "Revolver", the "Mystery of Bulgarian Voices" and maybe "Another side of Bob Dylan".
FB: Well there's definitely Beatles influence in your music, and a Bob Dylan influence in your music, but the second one that you mentioned, the "Mystery of Bulgarian Voices," how did that figure into the picture
MP: Well it actually is...my French is really bad, it's actually called " Le Mystir de vuav Bulgare" it's actually an album that I was a fanatic for years ago. It's an album of traditional Bulgarian folk music which Bulgaria sits geographically pretty much right between western Europe and Eastern Europe, and it's this magical combination of those 2 sort of modal forms so it'll so from very western like some beautiful gothic chants to something that sounds extraordinarily Mediterranean or even Palestinian and it's just and amazing... the voices of these women who sing in the choir are just incredible.
FB: That sounds like a good variety of stuff, and speaking of the Beatles, another question we have is from Katie DeFever "Michael I enjoyed catching your show at the Fez in New York and I enjoyed it very much since it had been over 7 years since I last heard you live, I really missed not hearing "Long Way Down" and others from your second album. What are your musical influences, the song writers you admire, some of the songs on the latest CD, she also wants to know what you think of Neil Finn and the Beatles...
MP: Well I am doing "Long Way Down" now, I didn't do it at the Fez, and that's mostly because I didn't have confidence that I could get a decent acoustic guitar sound live, but we're working on that and we're doing it at the moment. I like Neil Finn quite a bit. I was a Crowded House fan, and I think..whenever I think about Neil Finn's writing, I think about "Into Temptation" which I think is the best song they did and just an amazing piece of work. I am a Beatles fan I don't know what else I can say about it that I haven't said already... it's like in any kind of arena there are those that fail and there are those that are successful and of those that become successful, 99% of those don't use their success for anything worth a shit, but those guys did and they broke down a bunch of barriers and created lots of what I would consider to be new musical styles which exist to this day.
FB: So you said that you are planning a club tour, coming up apart from the difference in time you get to spend on-stage being a more than 1/2 hour being a headliner as opposed to being an opening act. How do you set your show up differently playing in clubs as opposed to arenas like this?
MP: Well that's a big thing actually to be able to play a longer set, because it allows the band to get into a groove, I mean we just kind of hit our stride with this and then the show's over and that's kind of unfortunate. It'll allow me to do a lot more older songs and hopefully allow me to connect with the audience a little bit. I mean I'm rather dismal at doing anything but getting up there and playing, but I'm working on that.
FB: I guess that by playing a longer set will mean that you'll be good at it that much quicker. We've got one from "Ring Dog" Daniel Herman, is it true that RCA forced you to record a third album before you resigned, and if so is there any chance that your devoted fans can get a copy?
MP: No, RCA didn't force me to record an album, I wanted to record an album and they had no interest in me recording and album. See what happended with me and the politics of the record companies is a fairly typical situation, and not to make a long and boring story long and boring, but basically what happened is that the people that originally signed me to RCA left after my first single off of March, and, the relationship started to turn sour event before the second album, and what it really kind of boils down is that if the people who sign you leave and a new executive branch comes in, any success that I would have had, would still be sort of in one aspect gets credited to the people that signed me, and not to the new regime. How it happened with me, that's understandable I do understand that. What happened to me I think was that they had this regime signed other people among them somebody who they thought was similar to me, and that it was more interested in boosting that career and not my career and that probably it would have even been problematic had my record come out, but I don't really know what happened, but all I know is that I really didn't get along with those people and it really kind of became kind of a nightmare.
FB: Yes well that's hardly a good environment to get your creative juices flowing, I would imagine. We have another question from the Internet, this one's from James, he says, " I want to know where you found Patrick Warren? I love the Chamberlain plays on Michael's albums as well as for Fiona Apple's CD, and also is Michael going to do a small club tour, and will Patrick be with you on that tour? "
MP: I've known Patrick since 1982 and I had a band in Los Angeles called Doll Congress. Patrick was the keyboard player for that band, when we were working together in Doll Congress, Patrick noticed this odd keyboard sitting on my shelf called the Chamberlain, it was something that I had sort of sought got and gotten, for some reason it was a sound that I felt a real kinship with. For those who don't know what a Chamberlain is, it's basically an antiquated sampler it was a keyboard that was invented in the late 1940's by a guy named Harry Chamberlain. What he did was essentially, he created a mechanical device which plays analog tapes, so every time you hit a key on the keyboard, it's pushing against a tapehead and running it down into a little sort of reservoir, so you actually have sounds of acoustic instruments being playing on an electronic keyboard. The basic patent for that was stolen by a company called Mellotron, who built sort of cheap copies of it... but Harry continued to sort of develop the instrument until he got it up to 8 tracks. I became aware of it through various other recordings particularly through David Bowie's " Lull and Hero's" record and through the use of the early Chamberlains or rather the early Mellotrons which were essentially Chamberlains on the Beetles' records. So Patrick started using it n Doll Congress and wound up getting some, and so that's that part of it... and so anyways Patrick at the moment is touring with Fiona Apple, and raking in a small fortune because Fiona has been very generous to him. I'm very happy for Patrick, but it is a drag that he's not touring with me at the moment, I do miss him very much, but once he's done touring, hopefully he'll come aboard, and that may be later in the year, we'll see.
FB: So now that you've put out 3 albums, and have a pretty decent discography to go and look back and see how you've grown and how you've changed, how would you assess your career thus far?
MP: Well jeeze let's see, I would assess my career, well just from a musical standpoint,... it's funny I listened to March for the first time in a long time just recently and I'm really surprised I'm quite proud of some of those songs. I think No Myth holds up, I think Invisible holds up, I think Harvest holds up. What else did I think...oh, Battle Room I liked.... there's a lyric in Innocent one I wish I'd never written but the song itself holds up and I'm also proud of Free For All. So I funny thing is with those first 2 records I was that I was sort of a manic perfectionist, I was spending a lot of time really sort of obsessing about the nuances of every single sound of those records, and I think that the ratio of what has lasted for me is about the same if I had been more spontaneous. So this last record was certainly has been a more spontaneous record, there will probably be things that bug me in the next few years, but there will probably be just as many thing which I will still be very fond of. Loosening up certainly makes the process more fun so I'll opt of that.
FB: So what do you have planned for the future? I suppose you plan on keeping the spontaneity going, or do you see... where do you see your career taking you in the next few years?
MP: My career is in the hands of those listening right now., and it's really kind of like... radio has been a bit resistant to the first single... I can tell you just from my own experience just since 1990 that it's become so narrow in terms of it's subcategorization of music, and what it accepts and these different formats of radio stations. For example I really believe that alternative listen to Try, which is my first new single, and when they hear the first few bars of acoustic guitar, they say "well this is certainly triple A," it's this other format. And Triple A will listen to Try and they'll hear a big sort of chorus, an they'll say, " well this is alternative." When you don't sort of fit their very narrow categorizations, you have a problem. You also have a problem because they only keep a certain amount of slots open for melodic pop music in any of these formats. So it's kind of up to those of you sitting at your terminals right now to call up their radio stations, to say things in news groups on the Internet, and hopefully to start some sort of a grass roots thing, 'cuz at this point, I'll make another record probably next year, and the touring will probably end by the end of this year, unless the record takes off because it's just a financial thing, you know, it's like the labels will certainly fund something if there's some activity on this sort of financial levels, but if it's not they don't want to put the money up so it'll be just time to start writing again.
FB: Do you ever feel pressure either from within yourself or from outside forces, either from the label or whatever to make yourself fit more cleanly into one of those two labels that you're sort of tossed around between?
MP: No, I mean nobody has tried to pressure me between that, most people who know me know better than to try to pressure me towards that, but for me it's like I am so offended at subcategorizing music in this way to begin with that... the reason I got into this is because the kind of music that excites me are so varied, and the things that I want to do are so varied... eclecticism to me is what rock music is all about, that's where it evolved to it evolved to the point where you could do anything and that's O.K. Within a context of an album has an ebb and flow, and it allows the listener to be taken on a journey, that's what is interesting to me. The other would just be an excercise to me and I don't really have an interest in that.
FB: Albums like that are the ones that tend to stick around, when people look back in 20 years, those are the ones that people pick out. Those are the ones that people say had influenced them, or those are the things that interested them 20 years from now...
MP: I hope that that will continue, I mean it seems to me that it's becoming more and more of a disposable culture, and that's really too bad. It's interesting to see the marketing campaign for this Radiohead record which is "do you remember albums" that's sort of the tag line with it, which ... on one hand it's kind of too bad that it's become a marketing ploy, to sort of remind people of that. But on the other hand, I think that it's a healthy reminder, which is that once upon a time, records weren't this sort of narrowly focused things with one or two good songs so that they could get on the radio and the rest of it was just a bunch of crap. There are still people out there making great records, but it's getting harder and harder to sort of get heard.
FB: I guess it changes the whole process when you start thinking about what your single is going to be?
MP: Oh yeah, but for me, my attitude is a single from my frame of reference is a great song, so I try to write an album's worth of them. So that doesn't necessarily mean that they're going to fit into somebody else's idea of what a single is, and it doesn't sound like fly, or what ever... Oh Shery's going on, hear the screaming
FB: Well I guess that wraps it up, thank you very much for talking to us, do you have any last words you'd like to leave us with before we sign off?
MP: Uh... I just hope that somebody saves Apple!
FB: Thank you very much for talking to us, enjoy the rest of your tour.
MP: Thanks a lot....