Thursday, October 22, 2009

TSG Interviews Pete Townshend ...again! (aka: Another Scoop)

As readers may or may not be aware, TSG's nom de blog comes from the time Pete granted an interview to a message board that I frequent (virtually-speaking, that is). is one of several forums that spung up when Pete's "official" board got shut down because posters couldn't behave themselves.  In my experience, The Shout is unique in that people with differing points of view can actually get along.  Trolls are unheard of.  The moderator has somehow gathered a bunch of "civilized" Who geeks together and created an online community in the best sense of the word.

Anywho, back in the early days of 2007, Pete was conducting media interviews soley by email, and posting them as diary entries on his web site. In a playful mood-- or possibly influenced by reruns of Kung Fu-- he began framing the Q&A sessions as discussions with "The Wise One".  One day TSG put forth a propositon that The Shout should collect some questions and request an interview for themselves. After a brief correspondence with Pete's personal assistant, Nicola Joss, we were allowed to submit the questions...with no promise that our interview request would be granted.

Long story short, within a day, a new diary entry appeared, entitled "Shouting Grasshoppers". The rest was history.  Until today that is, when history repeated itself.  Below is the transcript of my interview with Pete, eleven questions inspired by the members of The Shout.


1. A question about your your artistic decisions and judgments when it
comes to songwriting: What alternatives - if any - are considered? How much
exploration (e.g. demos, narratives, day dreams) are made before a decision
is made?(e.g. choosing to use a guitar or a piano or a ukulele - or ...)

This question made me stop and think. It's actually a question I have to ask myself sometimes. If you imagine I'm about to leave my home for a while, and I want to travel with the equipment and tools that would allow me to compose whatever might come into my head, I must try to work out what would be the minimal kit. Minimal always turns out to be the wrong word. I'd like a grand piano, an array of guitars, lots of electronic toys like drum boxes and fancy new keyboards, and reliable old workhorses like old tape machines and stuff. I need a massive truck.

I'm better off working at home where I have all these things.

I can do a lot with pencil and paper. I suppose I could make an album with pencil and paper and one guitar, and some tiny little recording gizmo they make these days. But composing for me has become a way of amusing myself as a bloke I suppose, rather than as an artist, and so my home studio has become like a toy train-set. I started this when I was about 18, and now I am 64, and several of the items in my first home studio train-set are still included.

You can see already that before I even try to make artistic decisions I try to create a good working environment for myself, especially one that will make me want to go to work every day. Imogen Heap just released a very intriguing record, with all kinds of electronic tricks combined with harmonic and lyrical invention, and if you go to her website you can see that she built herself a home recording studio that was incredibly orderly, focussed and powerful in order to pull it off. My approach is quite disorderly, and increasingly - as I get older - slow. I might need to do an Immie (as the girl is known to her fans) and tidy my kitchen.

So once I have my pencil and paper, my guitar, my grand piano and my train-set, funnily enough I walk away from them. I do this by going on tour, or going sailing, or walking with my dogs, or watching endless DVDs or reading crime novels or philosophy. I also try to meet new people if I can. I am not very sociable, but I genuinely love all kinds of people and find stories that are useful for songs in almost everyone I meet.

Then, as you suggest, I will start to gather ideas from life, dreams, day-dreams and wistful memories. Some of my best work, and the work Who fans often find most engaging and then releasing, comes from rage or anger - or frustration. I have to be very careful about trying to tap into this in me because I am addictive and compulsive and anger can often be the trigger to self-destructive behaviour. Even so, I do tap into it and it brings scope to my work that surprises me. A couple of early examples are MY GENERATION and WON'T GET FOOLED AGAIN, both of which were written about quite mundane personal things that had happened to me, that made me angry, but that fans received with a much broader and much more profound message.

Today, to answer your question with regard to my process and method in the studio, I have a song I am working on that has 'fallen under my fingers' in three forms. Firstly, I have what I call a 'lyric guide' that was included in the script for FLOSS. This is a kind of scattergun brainstorm onto paper of thoughts and ideas that I think should be in the song. The song in question is sung by an old lady who is horrified to find that her husband, dying of cancer, is in a mixed-sex ward of a local hospital. This is loosely based on something that happened to my mother Betty when she was hospitalised in Ealing near her home for a broken hip a few years ago. So on the page - a few lines - is something like this: Maud: No one is safe here. No one gets well here. And there is a lot more of this. Short sentences thrown onto the page to evoke the mood I am trying to convey, and express the outrage the old lady is feeling. Then what happens is I tidy that brainstorm a little, and include it in the script. Then, as I work through the story , reading it occasionally to refresh it, I might pick up a guitar and try to sing the lines. Recently, holding a small body Martin guitar that was tuned to an E chord, I found some music that fitted. However, it was a little folky, it sounded a bit Bob Dylan in some ways (Like MAN IN A PURPLE DRESS I think). So I turned to my Korg Oasys keyboard and found a string sound, with some built-in pre-programmed chords that also fit beautifully, and so today I am trying to combine the two - guitar and strings.

By the way, the Korg Oasys is a perfect instrument for a composer although it is very complex. Stephen Kay designed a music generator system for Korg called KARMA, and I always find it inspiring and useful. The KARMA system is included in other Korg keyboards that are less expensive than the Korg Oasys. IT"S NOT ENOUGH used a Korg Karma keyboard pattern that Rachel Fuller found and elaborated. I wrote words around it.

So far then, for old Maud, I have a song that has no drum track, no bass and no Gibson SG guitar. So Who fans hoping for that Live At Leeds sound will be left wanting. In fact, back in those days, in the studio, I never wanted to create basic tracks using electric guitar, I wanted to use acoustic usually. But Kit Lambert always persuaded me to use electric to drive the band along. Acoustic might be added later as a decoration rather than a fundamental. As I took over production, Who music (and most of my solo music) started life in the studio with acoustic guitar, piano or some kind of electronic synthesiser or organ track.

I sometimes set out to record a song that evokes the early Who sound, and it usually ends up sounding a little cliché. I am missing Moon and Entwistle. I have a very simple chord system - unique though it once was it is common now. I could get away with it when I could rely on John and Keith to add their amazingly powerful but still decorative touches.

2. Over the years, you've hinted at being somewhat of a "foodie";
commenting about a delicious meal somewhere, shopping for wine for coq au
vin, etc. Who does the cooking in your house? (And, do you have any favorite

Nice question, but for some reason I don't feel inclined to tackle it at length just now. Just had steak and vegetables for lunch while watching the TV news about Swine Flu vaccination here in the UK.

3. You have lived in London your whole life. What does the city mean to

It's home I suppose. Reading this some of you will say: 'Here he goes, harping on about the war again!'. The London I grew up in was smashed to pieces. There was bomb damage everywhere, and rebuilding was furious. I know the same was true in Europe and Japan and other countries hit by the war, but London is where I grew up. When I got my guitar at 11 years old I felt that I'd found my shovel - so to speak. I could take part at last. London is also a fulcrum between the USA and Europe musically speaking. That made it a good place to be when the function of pop music changed in the late '50s. You could see both sides, the old music from Europe, and the new music (or the way the old European music was being refashioned by ex-pats) from the USA.

4. On stage, you've worn everything from a boiler suit to Prada...any
comments on the evolution of your stage "costume"?

The boiler suit was a Billy Bragg-Angus Young style protest against psychedelia. Partly blue collar, partly a piss-take. It was defiance. Prior to that I had loved the Mod look, and still do. So I suppose I have now drifted back to a leaner, cleaner line. Like most people in pop the period that embarrasses me the most is the New Romantic period. But at the time I loved dressing like a pirate and wearing headbands. I like to be warm on stage, but I like to breathe. Roger likes to work without air-conditioning. So I have rolled out stretchy t-shirts and lightweight jeans to compensate. I feel happier in a suit, but if it's Prada the buttons fall off.

5. Do you have any particular memories about the Deep End project? Working
with Dave Gilmour, being a big band leader, etc?

You know, I still don't quite understand why I didn't take that band forward. It was such a good band for me, and although I didn't play electric guitar, I did find a way of performing that I enjoyed with musicians who could literally play anything I put in front of them. I was fearful of going back on the road. I suppose that I was still in recoil from a very harrowing stint of Who touring that ended with events like Cincinnati and feeling like we were supporting the Clash at Shea Stadium. I tried to create a new band around the Who using the Deep End format for the 25th Anniversary 1989 tour, but although it worked really well for some songs, it was overkill for most of the early Who catalogue (apart from maybe I CAN SEE FOR MILES that needs a lot of vocalists.) I was trying to protect my hearing as well. I remember the whole time fondly, and with amazement. Sometimes I look back and I can't work out how I managed to pull off certain things. This is one of them. Dave Gilmour deserves a special mention really. He is such a cool guy, and one of the very people in the world I have ever co-written songs with, albeit each of us working separately.

6. How do you feel about your celebrity these days? Is being recognized by
fans (or paparazzi) a burden?

It's a joy, always. I rarely get paps. I don't get any trouble from fans, I am treated with affection always. It makes the whole world seem like a village in which I am the local Diego Rivera or something. I have been with other celebrities sometimes and their experience is not always like mine. They sometimes get hassles. I seem to just get affection. I'm really lucky. On the other side of the coin, I often stop to talk to people who I think I know who don't know me. I am good at remembering faces, so I imagine I have seen them somewhere before. But so many people look like other people, it can backfire quite badly. There is one aspect of celebrity that stings. Imagine this: two people are walking towards you. One of them recognises you, and you brace yourself to smile like Prince Charles. As they pass the one who doesn't recognise you says to the other: "I don't care who he is, he looks like a creep to me". So celebrity can bring you down to earth as well as pump you up. As in this example, both can happen at once.

7. You've toured and made appearances all over the world--but it seems that
you've mostly seen airports, limos, backstage dressing rooms, and hotel
rooms. Is there anywhere you'd like to visit simply as a tourist?

Everywhere. But it won't happen now. When my friend Barney travelled with me he got me out and about a bit. I have travelled too much I think to be a tourist now, but my son came with me to Australia last trip and we made a bit of an effort. When you have concerts there really isn't enough emotional space to think about anything else. India is a place I've been twice as a tourist, and I spend a lot of time in France as a tourist. They are both extraordinary.

8. Did you ever have the urge to collaborate with someone on another album,
ala "Rough Mix"?

In the shower yesterday I was thinking that it would be good fun to make a record with some old superstar or other. It was such a great notion that I've forgotten who it was. Ronnie Lane was my best friend at the time of Rough mIx. Now if I want to collaborate I want to do it with Roger. I trust him completely.

9.. Any feelings one way or another about the passing of Michael Jackson?

Yes. I got friendly with him in 1982 and I liked him. He was not a pop genius. He was a very experienced and hard working artist and song-writer. A trooper. He was supported by some great people of course. However, he had that strange quality that all the really huge pop figures of recent years seem to have: he had a hole in his soul that he invited his audience to fill. He made unconditional space for us, and I think that's why we were all so shocked to be suddenly blocked out when his huge success and later legal troubles began. He had no option but to isolate I think, but it spelled the end.

10. At this point in life, could you stop performing and never feel the need
to get up on stage again?

Yes. I could have stopped performing as far back as 1962 without a hint of regret. I am art school boy really. I'd be happy with an exhibition every few years. I am not a natural performer. I don't get much out of it. I am quite detached, quite functional. I rarely get 'high' on stage. I rarely enter what musicians call 'the zone'. I think maybe I simply don't play well enough (according to my own standards not yours) to feel that high. However, recently, in the shows since John's death, I have found some spiritual fulfilment from performing that is new to me. Sadly, it isn't equal to the fulfilment that I get from composing, so I will always feel torn. What's strange is that I am obviously so good at performing. I really can't work out why, or how. I sincerely wish I enjoyed it. It would make my life perfect.

Bonus question, just for fun (with apologies to James Lipton): What is your
favorite curse word?

"Fuck it! Fuck it! Fuck it!" There have to be three repeats to give this overused expression its sting. This is what I say when I have lost my car keys or iPhone or something life-threatening like that. When I am less pissed off I might say the very British "Oh! Bugger!". What I should really say is: "I am extremely annoyed at my inability to keep track of something as simple as a mobile phone and a set of car keys. These items are vital to me. Why can't I simply place them somewhere secure, and remember where I've put them. I really am a total fool sometimes. I'm exasperated with myself. Oh! And by the way, you're being no help." Seems to me "fuck it x 3" is simpler, quicker, and says it all. "Oh! Bugger" in the English idiom suggests you have slumped in a chair and given up the search.