Van Dyke Parks :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Where does one begin to outline the career of Van Dyke Parks? Known best for his unparalleled work as an arranger (a trajectory from Randy Newman to Joanna Newsom) and for his musical and lyrical collaborations with Brian Wilson on the mythical Beach Boys SMiLE recordings, Parks has stayed prolific as ever. It was in the early sixties that the wunderkind Parks left New York for Los Angeles, his self-proclaimed focus on simply “expressing an idea” manifesting itself into a multitude of roles as a mover and shaker of the emergent west coast music scene. Song Cycle, the musician’s orchestral debut solo album in 1968, carries on an enduring legacy as a landmark recording in the realm of avant-garde music, perennially lauded by musicians like Jim O’Rourke. From his role collaborating with a wealth of artists at Warner Brothers Records to later, global-influenced solo offerings, the musician’s multi-faceted creative efforts are vast.

Ahead of planning an upcoming concert at the Getty Museum, Van Dyke caught up with AD from his home in Los Angeles. In addition to his philosophies on arranging and composition, we discuss some of the more understated (yet fascinating) parts of his prolific career: the audio/visual unit he created at Warner Brothers, relationship with Haruomi Hosono, fascination with steel drums and tuneful percussion, the moment he was embraced by psychedelia, and much more. Reflecting on his philosophy and original entry point into music, “not to be a focal point, but to be a utility”.

Aquarium Drunkard: You recently worked on a song by Sofia Bolt. How did that come about?

Van Dyke Parks: I arranged some saxophones. An incredible solo, I did five saxes. Check it. Really beautiful ribbon of sawtooth sound – very mellifluous. She did a very agitated introduction on her guitar. I said, enunciate what she’s saying and strengthen it. Use your ear – the first thing you must do when you’re arranging of course is listen. In this case, I felt that her guitar lick was so outlandish. I beg your pardon, but I was in the Mothers of Invention and I’ve heard some weird things. And this girl was on zone seven for sure on the intro, and I thought it was great.

She’s from France, came to LA and thrived in her insuppressible musical ability. She got this song together and I thought, I’d love to do something. And to stay out of the way, I thought five saxophones was the best way to do that. I decided to present it like a “frugal gourmet”. Something that would give her a continental buzz in the middle of the piece, a romantic sound. And I was very happy with it. Thanks for asking, it was fun.

AD: Does that happen a lot today? Young musicians reaching out to work with you?

Van Dyke Parks: Well, mostly people want to avoid me. They find a point of interest and they contact me and ask me what I think of their work. People want my advice about “how to”. Not because I’m that great, but because I’m endurable. You know, I’m eighty years old and have been doing this since 1963, with my first paid union arranging job: “The Bare Necessities”. A lucky lad I was to have a compassionate man provide that opportunity. Isn’t that something?

So I have found this great fascination … and there’s no dough in arranging, by the way. This is, I think, the focus of my public profile, in arranging. The presentation of the piece. Presentation isn’t everything. I know the magic three chords and the truths. Simplicity is a godsend. But, the fact is, the arrangements not only decorate but strengthen, enunciate and sharpen the focus. In every song, it’s inevitable what you can get. It adds so much dimension to use the imagination of arrangements as an equal partner in the presentation. A great film composer, Jerry Goldsmith, mentioned that when you’re scoring a man on a galloping horse, don’t score the hooves of the horse, score the mind of the man. Isn’t that great?

AD: It is.

Van Dyke Parks: So this is what I’m trying to elude to – you don’t always have to attack it with a ball peen hammer. There is art in cliché, but it’s good to be understated and stuff like that. Anyway, I work for that in what I like to call that frugal gourmet. Do something for tight budgets, or no budgets. You can tell I’ve wanted to preserve that curiosity of musicians sitting together. Many people got a lot of money from the record business through creative contracts and they got things like houses and a nice car. I put most of the bucks that I got in the orchestras. I wanted to hear the music. That’s what sustained me. The conventions of musicians all together. Whether it’s in a pub crawl or a concert hall.

I’m going to play at the Getty Museum up at the top of the hill in LA. I’m eighty years old, I’m just going to stick my neck out and do it. They have a nice theater, and asked what I wanted to charge for tickets. And I said oh my God, I have no idea, I want to charge nothing. I said it would be lovely for Mr. Getty to pick up the tab and make it free for everybody.

AD: And they made it work?

Van Dyke Parks: They said, “okay, we’ll do that”. Isn’t that great? But you may know, I’m somewhat branded in my work, there’s a lot of theatricalities. I look at my overproduced, overarranged records – I look back and the songs barely survived. However, they’re good songs. They’re all influenced by some social curiosity, something bigger than us.

It wasn’t just the steel drums that drew my attention. The post-empire plantation economy that brought the slaves into the new world … it wasn’t that, but that was a part of it. So I wanted to study post-colonial Trinidad and what it did to so many people I knew that just came into my life, that fed me when I was poor, my brother and me. Music was not born of some abstract kind of “what tune can I write today”. I wasn’t that interested in expressing myself. I wanted to express them, or it, or something that mattered. I wanted to express an idea.

So I would do that all through my life in my record projects. I would try to find focus on what people might find terribly abstract, but it’s a theater piece. An album was a theater piece. In my case only a few albums, I can’t brag. And each one of them sank like a stone. But the thing is, they all illuminated me and represented what was concerning me.

At this point in my life, aside from ecopolitics, ecology is job one and I’ve tried to insinuate that in my work ever since the Steel Band played “Aquarium” by Saint-Saëns. There was a relationship between the sea lions and transportation of oil and stuff. I was really pissed off when I saw that there was an oil tanker that was called the Condoleezza Rice. Oil has governed the United States for far too long. I was aware of that in 1969 with the oil catastrophe in Santa Barbara.

AD: This was the Esso Trinidad Steel Band?

Van Dyke Parks: What do I do? I turn to steel drums. The only acoustic instrument created in the Americas in the twentieth century. Give me another name and I’ll change my view on that. So I look at the steel drum as a phenomenon of great genius. This is where music took me, I got involved on several levels with the Esso Trinidad Steel Band. We thought we had manned a Trojan Horse, because I got the right to use “Esso”. Music took me to a letter to the chief legal counsel of standard oil of New Jersey.

I’m in an office at Warner Brothers, getting a secretarial salary. I found a phenomenal musical group, the Steel Band: twenty eight men here in the United States. So that was a big job, but to me it’s like, a search for principle and trying to make a difference in life and right here in the ‘hood, man. Do it right here. Act local, think global of course. Since ‘69 I’ve done everything I could to worm my way into that apple.

When I got an offer to do a show, it was to go up to the Getty, a beautiful concert hall, and not that big. And make it free, and give it a purpose. And the purpose is that the war in Ukraine is driving me nuts, okay? It’s depressing me, it depresses everyone I know even if they don’t talk about it. It’s unconscionable for us to do nothing. I’ve sung songs about democracy, like “FDR in Trinidad”. Democracy is a big deal to me. I qualify as a son of the American revolution, I take no credit for that. We’ve been here on Indian land since 1646, the Van Dykes. And I tell you, these are rough times.

So that’s the focal point, the way I justify getting out of bed and coming down there to smoke their shorts, it’s what I’m going to do. And I’ll be surrounded by great musicians, as usual. But, the justification for my vanity, and doing a concert, is to focus on Ukraine and on Moldova, which by the way is in the crosshairs of that brutal dictator. It’s unsurpassed in its brutality, to my understanding. My dad was the chief psychiatric examining officer at the liberation of Dachau. I’m not messing around.

AD: “High Coin” was the first song that you wrote. I always wondered if it was an odd sensation to have it covered by so many artists.

Van Dyke Parks: It was 1964. I played Harold’s Club in Reno. With the Brandywine Singers, I was the fifth wheel in this folk group. They made a lot of dough, more money than I imagined I could. I was twenty one years old, we were based in New England and played this place in Nevada. This is folk music, and I played guitar very well, I must say. I worked very hard at guitar. At the end of our gig, we went down to this place called Virginia City. Down there was Silver City. It was a wisp of a ghost town, with an active population of maybe a hundred people, hanging on in this arid place. There were saloons on the street, it was a dormant detour. I go in there with the bass player named Hal Brown, who was about 6’6, huge. When he left music he became the State Attorney General of Alaska. 

Hal and I went to see the wild west. We walked into the Red Dog Saloon. There’s maybe like two customers at the bar, but over in the corner was a group of four musicians in the corner, in a cloud of purple haze. They are all looking like English dandy men … foppish. Very stylish and obviously high. They were the resident group, called The Charlatans. When I came in through the swinging doors, it felt like that commercial where they said “New York City!” Who is this preppy kid coming in? But I came in with Hal, a very large man with his bass. So I asked if I could play a tune, and The Charlatans took it and recorded it. 

That was a big deal, because I was bagging groceries to make ends meet at the time. It just put me on a diamond lane to San Francisco with cruise control. And the psychedelia of San Francisco, that led to my auditioning to become the producer for Jefferson Airplane. And I went and interviewed for that, but to tell you the truth, they frightened me. They were too high to eat. And I’ve never been too high to eat. That scared me. So that’s how I got into that business with “High Coin”. Bob Dylan had hit the fan in ’63, everyone wanted to be Bob Dylan. I thought, if this guy could do this, anybody can. You didn’t have to have a great voice, just say what’s on your mind or your agitation, and I thought I would try that. 

I was twenty one, and it was all in an interest to serve in music. Not to be the focal point, but to be a utility … infield, outfield, ready to do it. This is my interest in music today, and it’s why I struggle. I struggle because I’ve had an infinite number of times when I’ve reached what they call redundancy. Where you write your way out of a job. That’s what you do when you’re a musician. If you’ve done something, you’ve provided. I mean, really feel that, and I think there’s a tangible benefit. And why I like this music, which is from the Ukraine, by the way … first of all, it’s tsymbaly. I’m nuts about tuneful percussion, and that’s what tsymbaly is, it’s played with two hammers. I’ve heard “Flight of the Bumblebee” on a tsymbaly in Prague, where I recorded Silverchair. 

The thing is, tuneful percussion has always fascinated me, even in recording. I was led into that with “Cocktails for Two” by Spike Jonze in 1948 when I first heard it. I was five, I remember that because it was a different type of music. And tuneful percussion is the thing that bridges the gap between John Philip Sousa, who you hear on a passing parade, and the most sophisticated sounds today. And in that line is the steel drum, and I’ve used a lot of marimba, I got the widest marimbas I could find. “Sailin’ Shoes” could not exist if it hadn’t been for that bass marimba that I had in the studio when Lowell [George] played for me that day. 

AD: Of all the iterations, did you have a particular favorite version of the song?

Van Dyke Parks: No, I really don’t. I think The Charlatans did the nicest thing, they just sang it straight from the heart. I’ll tell you what I do love: I had a friend named Kirby Johnson. He’d been one of the singers on Gilligan’s Island. Where were you the day Kennedy got shot? I was in Hollywood, in a bungalow staying overnight at this house off of Sunset Boulevard with Johnson and his folk group, The Lincolns. They did folk songs for Disney and stuff, they were plugged in, they were successful. I was there looking at their TV with Kirby when Kennedy got shot. We were all appalled, it affected my music and it affected everybody. The national psyche was in crisis. 

No black suits with American flag lapel pins that could hide the fact that the nation was in critical condition when Lyndon Johnson took the reigns. Kirby and I met through music, he was a great French horn player which was one of my favorite instruments, my brother played it. We had a great relationship, and I brought him in to arranging. And he arranged that tune beautifully for Jackie De Shannon. I love it because of its, well naivety … but it’s too childish, maybe. Such good, vanilla grits. 

You should hear some of the stuff that Jackie De Shannon was doing with Ry Cooder at the Ash Grove in LA, it’s available on YouTube. Incredible abilities and fluency. I love to hear music when people are adjusting to one another. That’s the process that I love, so that the ultimate value is mutual empowerment. There are no losers. I still read reviews, and I’m very interested in things. I’m reading a book about somebody’s view on the hagiography of the executives at Warner Brothers, called Sonic Boom by Peter Carlin.

AD: Prior to Song Cycle, I recently learned “Donovan’s Colours” was first released as a single under an alias.

Van Dyke Parks: Well it’s not my song, so that’s why I called it “Donovan’s Colours” and that’s why I spelled it “c-o-l-o-u-r-s”, that way to not mess with his title. I love “Do-Re-Mi” and “Fa”. I love the octave as much as pentatonic. I love them both, I like those worlds in melodic function, a horse and a carriage. But this piece was so simple, and Donovan also had a reputation as an underdog. Everyone said oh, he’s a Dylan wannabe. Well, I could remember when Bob Dylan was a Jack Elliot wannabe. I can remember when everybody wanted to be everybody. And that’s okay, it’s true. I’m always amazed when someone derives something from someone else, that’s good. 

I really felt this man, Donovan, was important, and I was going to give him a salute. And I would salute him by fantasizing, eviscerating, reinterpreting his simple piece. And it was so much fun to do that, and also to comment on the marimbas. It was in the studio, there was a marimba there. Use the marimba, right? I can’t play it because of the repetition. From the head to the hand, you need to be good, and I’m no percussionist. So I took the 15 IPS tape, slowed it down to 7 ½ IPS to cut the speed of the tape in half, and check it out. It sounded like I could play the marimba. Isn’t that fun? 

As the technology insinuated itself into these self-contained rendezvous, we made it work, and then I got a beautiful clarinet. It was a very fine thing to do, and it had all of the finest elements of a reinterpretation. It hit the ears of Lenny Waronker who got a record pressed. And I did put it out under a pseudonym, because I just didn’t want to go through the rigors of fame and fortune again, which I’d just been through with Mike Love. Nope, I don’t need that. So I put it out as “George Washington Brown”, that was the artist. Anyway, it ended up on a jukebox in Greenwich Village, and this is how it got noticed. 

AD: In 1972, the legendary Happy End recorded their third album at Sunset Sound with yourself and Lowell George. I’ve heard bits and pieces about the sessions.

Van Dyke Parks: [Laughing] What did you hear about it?

AD: I know that Haruomi Hosono has spoken about it briefly. It seems like the band really desired that Los Angeles studio experience. How did it come about on your end?

Van Dyke Parks: I was doing a session for my album Discover America at Sunset Sound in the front room, big room. I was working on an album, and Lowell was playing for me. I was obliged to provide an album, and do it as quickly as I could. So there I was luxuriating in a great studio with a great piano with Lowell George, trying to figure things out. And a bass marimba, by the way. Unannounced, into the control room came a quartet of Japanese rockers and a couple of other people. Including one of them who had a briefcase. I was, I think, angry when I went into the control room because we would smoke marijuana, and we didn’t want people to know that. It would be embarrassing if they did. Anyway, the one guy gives me a present. I don’t know these people. He says, “we have a present, Mr. Parks”. 

I open it carefully and it’s a pearl. I go into another room to weep, okay? I’m over there regretting my attitude. I collect myself and go back into the room, and Lowell has his arm around an open briefcase with twenty dollar bills, just stacks of cash. And Lowell says, “I think we can make music out of this”. They were into the idea, but I said I can’t do this, I have other irons in the fire. They said they wanted us to make them the California sound. So Lowell says let’s do it now. Lowell and I went in and made up a song called “Sayonara, America”. It capitalized on the bass marimba that I had there for the day.

AD: Were you communicating with the band via a translator?

Van Dyke Parks: Oh yeah. It was rugged, alright. It compounded the errors. But I did not have time, and Lowell needed the job for his group. Bingo, eureka! I encouraged it, I said Lowell would be a great producer, folks. Hire him and the struggling musicians. Which is redundant of course. Isn’t that great? It just worked out.

AD: I love the album.

Van Dyke Parks: Oh, me too, are you kidding? I was so … he is such a fine fellow.

AD: You’ve since played with Hosono at various concerts, right?

Van Dyke Parks: Yes, but I want to say this. The big deal for me was when he wanted me to arrange that tune called “Yellow Magic Carnival”. That was a great opportunity for me to get a scat singer. I don’t speak Japanese, and I was under a time constraint. Do you want it good or do you want it Monday? So I thought it would be a great escape to have her do his melody, in scat. And this very talented singer, Julianna Raye. I knew her through someone, I don’t remember who. I’m kind of like Antique Roadshow by now, I’m eighty! [laughs]. It was a long time ago, but she captured my heart. That was my finest moment with Hosono – I love him.

AD: At Warner Brothers, you started an Audio-Visual department that included making short films for artists, almost like proto-music videos. You said that you saw it as an alternative revenue stream to touring.

Van Dyke Parks: Absolutely. That was job number one, that was the rationale. That these artists … and I’m telling you, I knew. I was a participant to it all. I knew that these people were being put at risk by these drugs that would drive the big tours and all of the demands. It took a lot of drugs to sustain it, and why do that? Why not have to do that, and still somehow participate and profit? So to tell you the truth, after the $18,500 cost recovery, the artist would benefit from 25% of the net. 

AD: Do you know what happened to that footage? 

Van Dyke Parks: It was just maybe a baker’s dozen. The only one that I took was a, what do you call it, 16mm? I took a 16mm of Ry’s. But there were others – there was a concert of Earth, Wind & Fire that I did alone. And Little Feat. 

AD: There was a venue here called the Ludlow Garage, and Captain Beefheart and Ry Cooder were the final concert. Apparently there was a Warners film crew there,, and I always wondered if that was one of these projects.

Van Dyke Parks: Well, I wasn’t there. I stayed in the office to justify the expenses which were of course write offs. They weren’t disposed to the idea until I had a successful run of contracts with people like Joni Mitchell and Randy Newman who knew that it was a good idea. Joni Mitchell’s was animated, a big yellow taxi, was it? And I felt like Joni Mitchell was “it”, after hearing “Night in the City” … what can I say.

AD: You mentioned the recent book Sonic Boom that documented that peak era of Warners. I’ve read it, but what did you think?

Van Dyke Parks: Well, I think that he did … like I mentioned to you earlier, a hagiography. Building an executive ship into sainthood, which I find quite revolting and right in line with the excesses of celebrity. Look, I’ve spent my wad on it. Look at vanity and the successes it brings to people like Donald Trump. I’m really trying only to bring purpose to the music and it has put me in some great places. I never would have thought that I would spend so much time on one chord with Lowell George as I did on “Spanish Moon”. I think that was my best session.

AD: One infamous incident was Stan Cornyn’s print advertisement of Song Cycle and the money that it lost. I take it you didn’t take kindly to this?

Van Dyke Parks: I felt like I was being characterized. In an attempt to sneer at something. He came from an era of the Stan Freberg mentality. Compound that with a Joe Smith, a Don Rickles mentality. The wash of a Vegas roster and managerial dominance, with Sinatra down the line. And it’s amazing to me the fascination with approval that it seems to give, and with no regard for the principles of the industry that it implements. Check it. John Philip Sousa said, by the way, that he never wanted his music to be recorded, because he thought recording would ruin the lives of musicians. I’ve watched this thing, what the twentieth century did to the participants of the creative art of the pie. When there were pennies from heaven, like 1910, a song sells for ten cents. The songwriter and publisher split it. Whoa nelly! [laughs]

AD: I wanted to ask your thoughts about when synthesizers began creeping into popular music. You were an early user of them for commercial scoring and such, though I don’t think they were used in your records much.

Van Dyke Parks: Oh, I think synthesizers are totally valid. I’ll tell you, quite frankly, I was one of four guys that I knew of that had a Moog synthesizer. It was wonderful. You eluded that I did some commercials, but dig it. There was nobody to teach you, there was no manual. What I wanted to know was how to make that noise, that it would make a vowel and make a consonant. And I taught the synthesizer for my Ice Capades commercial, with the skates and the blades. I had the Moog say the words “Ice Capades”. It was wonderful. I felt like Yogi Berra. I came to a fork in the road, and I took it. And the one I took was the one with the opportunities to pay the rent. I took some relief, I wouldn’t have to worry about who was going to truck my gear from here to there. I found liberty in writing and trying to premeditate something in response to something that mattered. 

AD: From your perspective, I was wondering how you felt when the SMiLE project finally had its revitalization during the mid-2000s.

Van Dyke Parks: I was … to me, it was all very curious. It was amazing to me, you can’t make up this stuff. And the inevitable, you know, prismatic variances of what “really happened” stopped annoying me so much. I just stopped giving a damn, because the fact is, it was a very fine effort and I’m glad they had the stamina to pull it off. Very deserving work.

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