THE POP PERFECTIONIST Richard X. Heyman
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
There are some artists who are so steadfast in their dedication and determination, they persevere in their efforts and create great music, regardless of whether the world chooses to take notice. Richard X. Heyman is one of those people, a man who's accumulated an incredible canon of vibrant melodies, ever-ready refrains, sumptuous hooks and the kind of songs radio once craved, prior to the onslaught of American Idol-spawned pretenders and drab, disposable wannabes. Over the course of the past 25 years or so, Heyman's garnered a remarkable reputation by virtue of a stunning series of albums - both on his own and more recently as a member of his early, recently reincarnated group, the Doughboys -- that affirm a power pop template, but push at the parameters of that often stylized sound. His latest outing, Tiers/And Other Stories pays double the dividends, two complementary and thematic sets of songs that weave a continuing commentary, beginning with his relationship to his wife, collaborator and accompanying musician Nancy Leigh and concluding with his views on life, love and pathways taken.
Aside from his remarkable musical talents - as always, he plays practically every instrument on the two albums -- the thing that emerges overall is the fact that Heyman is an especially thoughtful and sensitive individual, a man that spends several hours a day traipsing through New York neighborhoods and leaving food for the animals that reside in this otherwise inhospitable terrain. Likewise, the fact that he's had associations with several major record labels in the course of his career and now records under his own auspices finds him neither feeling neither bitter nor betrayed.
We recently had the opportunity to sit down with this remarkably prolific power pop pundit and talk about the new albums, his history and Heyman's views of life in general.
BLURT: First, the obvious question - why TWO new albums? As opposed perhaps to a double disc?
RICHARD X HEYMAN: For many years I had a Kurzweil electric piano. One day a couple of keys stopped working, so I took it into the shop to have it repaired. When they opened it up, they said the reason these keys don't sound right is because the inside of this piano is full of cat hair. So they cleaned out the fur and it all worked fine for a while. Then more keys stopped working because, well, more cat hair got in there. I got tired of having it fixed, so I decided to buy another piano, which the salesman assured me was impervious to cat hair. I bought a Yamaha electric piano with built in speakers. This new piano inspired me to play because a) all the keys worked and b) the built-in speakers made it very accessible and easy. I immediately started writing songs on it. The first one was "Hot On The Trail of Innocence." Next thing I knew, there were close to fifty songs. I kept saying to Nancy, I think we can fit all of these on one CD, but I was just in denial. After trimming the selection down to thirty, I reluctantly realized that it was gonna have to be two separate albums.
It really comes down to semantics, whether this is two separate albums or a double. The idea came from The Beach Boys' two-fer CDs. Those were two albums repackaged onto one disc with both original covers. I just took it a step further and separated the two albums. I view this as a two-fer.
How do these two albums differ musically and conceptually?
The Tiers album is a pop opera, telling the tale of Nancy and me meeting, splitting apart, her going to NYC from Maryland and me taking off to Hollywood for three years. Then I moved back to New York and we've been together ever since. And Other Stories contains songs about our life in New York, some mutual interests like our animal rescuing experiences, our love of wildlife, the aftermath of September 11, 2001, losing some close friends and family members, and the evaporating baby boom generation. The main concept musically is that these songs were mostly composed on the piano. I've been meaning to do a keyboard-based album for a long time, but there's not so much of a stylistic difference between the two albums. They're mainly lyrically different.
Word is that one of these albums is a concept effort that details your relationship with Nancy. So are you the narrator of these songs or did you create a fictional character to represent you?
Well, there's always a balance. One could ask, is Bob Dylan the narrator of Blood On The Tracks? Did Bob really shoot a man named Gray and take his wife to Italy? And if he did, I think the police should be looking into it. This stuff - not to sound too hoity-toity - falls under the umbrella of "art." And art is not real life. Of course, there is the old adage, write what you know, so there are usually elements of the writer's life incorporated in their work. So I - the singer/songwriter - am the male character in the story, which is based on my recollection of what happened. Several songs are from the girl's point of view. But they're songs, not real life, though I did put a lot of heart and soul into them.
From what we understand, the other album draws on your love of show tunes and standards? Is that correct? That sounds a risky proposition in these oh-so-hip and too trendy times... what do you think?
I do love many Broadway musicals and, like my rock 'n' roll influences, those elements probably seep into the soup. I stopped chasing bandwagons a long time ago. I couldn't name a top-40 hit from the last couple decades if my life depended on it. Truth be told, it's the emotional release that drives me more than anything else.
How long have these songs been gestating? Are they all new tracks, written specifically for these two albums?
As I mentioned earlier, the Yamaha piano sparked this writing spree. The songs all came out in one fell swoop over the course of a couple of months. Pretty much in the order they're sequenced. Except for the instrumental "Going For Baroque" which is one of the first things I ever wrote on piano, and one of the songs I played for Nancy the night we met.
When you are conceptualizing a new album, do you come up with a 'theme' first and write the songs around that, or do you have the songs and then figure out how they will fit together?
My past albums were collections of songs I had written. Some songs were brand new, others could be several years old. I would pick and choose songs that worked together as an album. This new project was the first one that was actually theme oriented. What happened was, after writing the first three songs that kick off the Tiers album, I realized that I was subconsciously recounting the beginnings of my relationship with Nancy down in Bethesda, Maryland. And from that point on, each song furthered the plot. At that point I knew I had to take it all the way out to L.A. and back to New York to complete the saga. I got so carried away that I felt the logical next step was to write about our experiences here in New York, subjects that are meaningful to the two of us.
You've made music in both the world of the record labels and as an indie artist? Can you compare them in terms of your experience as what it's like to operate within each? What have you found to be the advantages, disadvantages?
The big difference was lunch. When I was recording Hey Man! in L.A., people from the label would go out and buy lunch and dinner and bring it back to the studio. Now I have to walk into the kitchen in our apartment and raid the fridge. It's nice to be fussed over and catered to. But the labels didn't push or promote the finished product like they said they would. So that was frustrating. I like studios but I'm always worried about the clock and the cost. Working at home, there are no budget worries. Our main concern is disturbing the neighbors. I'm always wondering, while I'm screaming my head off into the microphone in my boxers, what the people in the bedroom above us must be thinking. Back before there were state-of-the-art home recording systems like Logic Pro, and you had to record in a proper studio. And to afford a good studio was above most people's budgets. So it was necessary to secure a record deal, just to physically and mechanically make a decent sounding record. Now you can match the highest paid major label artist sonically in your bedroom. That is a major change. Of course, unfortunately people can also clone the original recordings for free. But the cat's out of the bag now. We'll just have to wait and see how it all plays out. Hopefully there's still a loyal audience for indie artists.
Give us an idea of some of your influences growing up - the artists, bands and composers that initially inspired you to make music.
Having three older sisters, I got to hear the music they were into as a kid. They had various boyfriends who would bring over records. I remember hearing Dion & The Belmonts, Ricky Nelson, early Beach Boys, James Brown, Ike & Tina Turner Revue, etc. My sisters would all watch American Bandstand after school, so I got into that. Then there were my parents' records - lots of big band jazz, Broadway musicals and Sinatra as well as a bunch of classical stuff. Some Gershwin...all kinds of music. Then when I started getting in bands, I was hearing a lot of The Ventures and other instrumental records. I always loved the Everly Brothers and Chuck Berry, and later I got into the blues - Freddie King, Magic Sam. Then of course there was top 40 radio. Sam Cooke, Motown, Marvin Gaye, The Beach Boys, The Four Seasons... and then all hell broke loose! The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Stones, Byrds, Kinks, Who, on and on. I gotta say, in all candor, that one of the biggest influences on my piano playing is Joni Mitchell. As a matter of fact, when I first started writing these songs, the working title for the project was Gentleman of the Mountain, as an homage to Joni's Ladies of the Canyon. But nothing can top a great rock 'n' roll record. Rock 'n' roll hasn't affected my life - it is my life.
How did you come to reform your early band, the Doughboys? How did the reunion come about? Now that it's a full fledged entity, where is the divide between your solo work and your efforts with the band?
I used to tell Nancy stories about the band I was in as a kid called The Doughboys. So one day, as a surprise for my birthday, she organized a Doughboys reunion. She called the original members and asked them to rehearse a set and to come to a New York City club on the date she booked. So I showed up and there they were, ready to rock. I get my rock 'n' roll jones from The Doughboys. I'm learning how to write garage rock style songs which is not really my forte, but it's a lot of fun. And I get an incredible aerobic workout each time we play. Whereas these two albums are bedroom rock, genteel and hopefully soothing.
You've had the opportunity to play with some of your musical heroes - Brian Wilson, Peter Noone etc. -- experiences which you detailed in your book a couple of years ago - but out of all these experiences, what are the two or three that stand out as life changing or life affirming encounters?
Playing drums for Link Wray was a special experience. That man basically invented the power chord, back in the late 50's. It was exhausting but exhilarating, trying to keep up with his energy. It's always a gas getting together with Peter Noone. He tells the most wonderful stories and is extremely smart. And what a great singer! Better than he's given credit for. At one of the gigs I played with Brian Wilson, after "God Only Knows", he turned around and said "That was the best 'God Only Knows' ever!" And then after "409", he leaned back again and said, "Great drumming, man!" That was a thrill.
Your music is consistently brilliant - melodic, packed with hooks, memorable tunes etc. - and yet the mass appeal, wide ranging acceptance that is so clearly your due, has eluded you up until now. Is that frustrating? How important is it to reach a wider audience?
Thank you for your kind words; most laudatory. Well, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of my unpopularity have been greatly exaggerated. Who listens to my stuff and how many is completely out of my hands. Would I like to be on "MTV Cribs" showing off my Lower East Side digs and closet full of Beatle boots? Perhaps, but I'm thankful for what I've got and having good health is more important than anything. But if you really want to know how I feel, listen to "The Real Deal" on the Tiers album.
How would you sum up your career so far?
I look at it as more of a vocation than what you would call a career. But again, I'm getting into semantics. Being a musician was not a chosen profession, but something that was apparently embedded in my DNA. I don't come from a musical family and yet I instinctively gravitated to the drums at the age of five before my feet could even reach the bass drum pedal. I'm just glad to be able to make music and still rock out. But I'll give it a shot - here's a quick summation off the top of my head. Got signed to Bell Records when I was fourteen with The Doughboys, put out a couple singles. In my late teens, I played drums with The Quinaimes Band, who were on Elektra Records, and got to tour with Sly and The Family Stone and the Ike & Tina Turner Revue at venues like Madison Square Garden and Boston Garden and the Beacon Theater. I went from that to forming my own band called The Rage as lead singer/guitarist down in Washington, DC while simultaneously playing drums for Link Wray. This was in the mid 70's. Then I took off for L.A., which by the way is the heart of the story of Tiers. I played drums with a country rock band called Cooper Dodge as well as doing some solo shows. Then I went back to New York to reunite with Nancy and put out my first single "Vacation" in 1980.
I started recording solo stuff in earnest, beginning with my first EP Actual Size, then the album Living Room!!, which landed me a deal with Cypress/A&M leading to Hey Man! on Sire/Warner Bros. Cornerstone came out on Permanent Press Recordings. As you can see, there's a pattern here. So Nancy and I decided to start our own label, Turn-Up Records on which we put out Heyman, Hoosier & Herman, Basic Glee, Rightovers, Actual Sighs, Intakes and now Tiers/And Other Stories. Phew! I'm summed out.
You're such a prolific musician. How many songs do you have remaining in the vaults?
There are quite a few recorded but most of my songs are stored in my head, which has sprung a little leak. It's alarming to forget a couple for every new one I've written. Since the Tiers project has been completed, I've been raiding my old accordion file full of lyrics from songs I've forgotten musically and setting them to new tunes, gearing up for the new Doughboys album. At a certain point I took an anti-demo stance. I was tired of chasing after demos, meaning trying to recreate the original feel for the actual recorded version. The problem is, there are only so many brain cells to go around to retain all those chord progressions and melodies, and a few float off to some other songwriter down the block.
A version of this interview also appears in the latest issue (#10) of BLURT.
Read more at http://blurt-online.com/