An Abstraction of Peculiar Experience :: Tom Lunt On William Eggleston

Memphis photographer William Eggleston’s work is immediately recognizable, a wash in strong colors and implied meaning. A lifelong pianist and lover of music, the 84-year-old’s music is similarly loaded with possibilities. His debut, 2017’s Muzik, was built on synthesizers. But 2023’s 512, named for the apartment unit he occupies, finds Eggleston drifting into more familiar and revealing zones at the piano, interpreting classic songs like “Over the Rainbow, “Ol’ Man River,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” and “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

“I asked him to play songs he liked to play,” producer Tom Lunt says of his “Great American Songbook” selections. Building on their work together on Muzik, 512 pairs Eggleston’s raw piano sessions, recorded at Parkview apartments with the aim of letting the outside world into the completed record, with contributions from a wide cast, including Brian Eno, Sam Amidon, Matana Roberts, Leo Abrahams, and others, who add light touches and expansive elements to Eggleston’s delicate and considered playing. Known as co-founder of Numero Group, Lunt’s interest in Eggleston’s work was originally rooted in photography, a passion they share. And while 512 is a musical work, there is an implied visual quality too. It’s a work of imaginal space due in no small part to Lunt’s vision for the album, which he joins us to discuss and unpack. | j woodbury

Aquarium Drunkard: William’s photos have appeared on so many album covers: Big Star, Joanna Newsom, Silver Jews, Spoon, others. So many music listeners and fans first experience William Eggleston’s photography out of context from his larger body of work. As a teenager, I remember Jimmy Eat World’s Bleed American and being so struck by it. But I didn’t know who he was at first. I just knew I liked the image and associated it with that music. How did you get introduced to his work?

Tom Lunt: I’ve been a photographer since I was 12. My father also was a hobby photographer, so we used to get magazines that would let you know what was going on. And there was a show called “The New Color” in New York City. It was not the show [of the same name] that happened afterward, that John Szarkowski put together for William Eggleston at the Museum of Modern Art, but it was around then. A friend of mine in New York took me to the show and a few photographs by William Eggleston were in it. I absolutely loved it. I think I was probably in my mid-20s, so it was a long time ago. I’ve been following him ever since. I think I bought William Eggleston’s Guide shortly after that, maybe when I was 26, 27. Later on, when I saw album covers with his photographs on them, I was able to immediately identify them. Probably the one that stuck out for me was Big Star’s Radio City because I’d already seen that photograph.

AD: Alex Chilton had that Memphis connection to him. 

Tom Lunt: Yeah. Alex lived behind where William was living at the time, so they knew each other. They knew each other because Chilton’s family was heavy in the art world. 

AD: There’s a great Eudora Welty quote about Eggleston. She’s describing all the different subjects of his photos, and she surmises that he’s trying to convey the mundane world, but she concludes “there’s no subject more full of implications than the mundane world.”

Tom Lunt: That’s true. William would tell you the same.

AD: I really enjoyed Musik. I feel like 512 is more informed by vernacular songs. I want to say “mundane” songs, but that’s not the right fit. I mean “folk” or “common” music—ordinary music in the sense that’s common among people. What are your impressions of the song selections for this?

Tom Lunt: I’d heard him play “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” once. I think I’d heard him play “Over the Rainbow” too because I used to go down to his place at his assisted living facility where he was staying and he would always play something for me from the “Great American Songbook,” or Scottish folk music, or he would play something Bach-ish that wasn’t really Bach—though Bach is his favorite artist of all time. Bach [informs] the first track on that record, then the rest of it was completely improvised. It came totally out of his head with the exception of one track, a Gilbert and Sullivan track. But that’s kind of where he comes from. I don’t think that he would agree that it’s “mundane” or “common” music. I think he sees this as all classical music. This is music that stood the test of time.

AD: Sure, that makes sense. This version of “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” is incredible. That’s Matana Roberts on saxophone. They bring so much to the table, how did they get involved in the session?

Tom Lunt: Probably the best thing to do is describe how this happened. I [approached] recording him as a field recording. I’d been listening to Charles Ives’ home recordings. What I loved about them was that you could hear the room. I wanted a recording like that. I wanted windows open so you could hear the Parkview, and the park outside, dogs and birds, somebody’s air conditioner, all of these things. Once we got it all down, I spent a few years listening to it and had an idea, that it would be interesting if this music he was playing caught the attention of other people who may or may not be living—who might be in an apartment down the hall, who might be in the park outside—but the music would draw them in and ask them to contribute.

I got in touch with Sam Amidon, who I’d known for a long time. We had gotten together when I was working on a record for Liam Hayes. Sam jumped at the chance to do it. He  asked Leo Abrahams to jump in on it. Leo is just a tremendous engineer and an astonishing musician and a great idea guy. There was a chain of collaboration that happened after that. Sam got Leo involved, Leo got Matana Roberts, Brian Eno, Seb Rochford, and Mikele Montolli. We worked via Zoom calls where I am in Chicago and where they are in London. I would just continue to give them direction. We worked together very well, so that’s how that group of people came together, and I think that they accomplished exactly what I was looking for: there were spirits in the room, ghosts in the room that were playing with William, and in some cases they really sounded like spirits and ghosts.

AD: Had you ever worked that way? Remotely?

Tom Lunt: No. This was new. We didn’t use video at all by the way.

AD: Oh, wow.

Tom Lunt: I tend to think of myself not as a record producer, but as a record director anyway. Like the way films are made. You write a script and you cast it. That’s the way I look at doing any project. I love working that way. It’s a Hal Willner kind of way. He’s probably my favorite record producer.

AD: I’ve been thinking about Hal a lot since his death. He seemed like he had this ability to make a whole musical world. I think of him almost in the same lineage as Harry Smith or something, right? There’s an alchemical process at work, where the weirdness of the individual—not weirdness in a pejorative way—but its where control is handed over to that weird little freak inside that asks: what if we combine this with this? Obviously Eno is like that too. What kind of relationship have you had with Eno in the past? If you’re casting a movie, he’s a good person to have in a role.

Tom Lunt: Except for owning his records and listening to his music, I have no relationship with Brian Eno and have never spoken to him. The way that came together was that Leo had known Brian for years. Also, Brian lives up the street from Leo.

AD: You’ve got a regional connect.

Tom Lunt: Yeah. So Leo was over at Brian’s house, and said, “Hey, I’m working on this thing with William Eggleston. Wanna hear it?” He played some of it for Brian, and Brian thought it was really interesting and said, “Would you mind if I put some bells on that?” So the first track, an improvisation by William, is enhanced by these bell sounds throughout, and Brian—from what I can tell, like I said, he’s never communicated directly with me—took note and add more sonic dimension and texture to it with a DX7, which is his favorite instrument.

AD: What did William think as you introduced these collaborations to him?

Tom Lunt: He said that it sounded “very modern.” “I’ve never heard anything like it.” I remember, walking away from him after [the initial] recording. We had a bad first day and a good second day and he said, “Everything in a photograph works or nothing works.” The first day was “nothing works,” and the second day was “everything worked.” But I walked away going, “Oh, I’m thinking about doing this with it. I’m not sure what I want to do.” He said, “Tom, you can do whatever you want with it.”

AD: What was the trick to getting the second day to work?

Tom Lunt: It was just a matter of what mood he was in. If he wasn’t in the right mood on day one, then he was on day two. That’s pretty typical of any recoding session. You might bring someone into the studio and you’re not getting it, and the next day you are all of a sudden. But we only had two dates; I had Adam Hill from Ardent booked to do the mobile, and after that we’d be out of money. So I’m glad it worked out the way it did, and it worked out great. I mean, he just delivered on day two. It was beautiful.

AD: You suggested “Onward Christian Soldiers,” too?

Tom Lunt: Yeah. I had a 30-minute recording of “Onward Christian Soldiers” that I pulled for the first record. I can’t remember exactly. I had between 60 and 90 hours of music of his that he had done on a synth.

AD: That’s a lot to sift through.

Tom Lunt: After a while I had to stop and go, “Well, I’ve got it. I’ve got the record.” But there was a 30-minute track of him playing “Onward Christian Soldiers” on the synth and you could hear the Christian soldiers slaughtering Muslims on that track.

AD: It was violent sounding?

Tom Lunt: It was violent. It was just insane. Every now and again it would just go into noise. It was crazy. I asked him what he might do with “Onward Christian Soldiers” because I really liked what he had done on the first track that I had heard. But that was a synth track, and [now] he just had piano and I didn’t know what he was gonna do. It turned out he took a much more subtle approach. He’s very anti-religion, so you can sense that in the 512 track that it’s not meant to be a hymn—it’s meant to be an interpretation of a hymn and anything that that might mean.

AD: I found myself thinking a little bit about Jimi Hendrix with “Star Spangled Banner” or the way Bill Orcutt plays it, where it’s a comment on something more than a faithful reading. What’s really interesting about William’s version of it on this record is the melody still reveals itself as so insistent. You know what I mean?

Tom Lunt: It’s undeniable. Over and over again.

AD: I’m thinking about violent nationalism and religion. William’s work often features religious iconography.

Tom Lunt: Well, yeah because it’s there. There’s an interesting quote of his: “Whether it’s a photo or music or a drawing or anything else I might do—it’s ultimately all an abstraction of my peculiar experience.” As a man of the South, he’s surrounded by religious experience, so it’s an interpretation in some ways of how he feels, but also sometimes in that track, it’s very delicate and endearing, as well.

The other thing about that track that’s really interesting to me is it’s a jazz trio—it’s like if Monk was doing it. There’re drums and bass in it and they’re following him really beautifully. The cymbals will appear at certain times and they’re absolutely appropriate to everything he’s doing.

AD: I went back and watched the short film that was made for Musik. Was that filmed at Parkview, the same place you recorded this one?

Tom Lunt: Yes. That’s #512.

AD: The space seems so totally him. I was thinking about the contraption he had set up to display musical waves on screen.

Tom Lunt: Oh, you’re talking about the oscillator? He collects electronic equipment. He collects it for its beauty. He loves old compressors, limiters, oscillators. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Bill Eggleston, his son. He makes some of the greatest stereo speakers in the world. [Eggleston] has a pair of those speakers in his house, but he also has that giant JBL theater speaker that in photographs might look like a console or something—but it was behind the screen somewhere in a movie theater. He has a lot of things like that around the house.

AD: Thinking about that oscillator make me think about the relationship between the visual and the musical. Do you feel like there is some through line that carries through in terms of his approach?

Tom Lunt: Absolutely. I don’t think there’s any difference. I don’t think there’s any difference in the way he approaches music or photography. His favorite song from the rock era—you would never guess what it is. Guess, what’s his favorite song from the rock era?

AD: “Legs” by ZZ Top?

Tom Lunt: It’s “Alley-Oop” by The Hollywood Argyles.

AD: I don’t know “Alley-Oop” by The Hollywood Argyles.

Tom Lunt: It’s very goofy.

AD: Goofier than “Legs” by ZZ Top? I don’t know.

Tom Lunt: I don’t know either. But I don’t think there’s any difference between photography and music for William. It’s just what he does. He once told me that composition cannot be taught. I’ve learned to believe him about that. I’m also a photographer, so that really struck me hard—that you either have it or you don’t, that if you try it doesn’t work, it’s immediately recognizable. There’s something about his music that makes me feel the same way as his photography. That he did it, there it was, here it is. You don’t have to think about it anymore. You don’t have to talk about it. Just look at it. It’s right there in front of you. He would say that same thing. I believe they’re both a representation of who he is and what he wanted to do at the time.

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