A Talk About Woke Up Laughing
Gerald Seligman: Robert, you seem to have a voracious musical appetite.
Robert Palmer: I think it comes from having virtually no other form of entertainment when growing up in Malta. Until I was 12 we had no TV or cinema, and my parents and their expatriate friends were all music fans and would record things off the American Forces Network or imported vinyl. Then they would all swap tapes, and they'd all party together. Most nights I would fall asleep listening to a real broad range of the hippest music. I think to a certain extent, looking back on it, that experience excluded so many musical prejudices that come along with today's generation. Today it's how they look often more than how they sound.
GS: There are a lot of artists who, when they are incorporating influences from other international music, seem to do it in a way that is very self-serious, almost severe. Listening to this collection, it doesn't seem to me the music of someone who takes himself too seriously, but rather the work of a serious musician, who loves music of all types from all over. It's from someone connected to the joy of it all and who wakes up, well, laughing.
RP: Thanks. I suppose in a broader sense I attach some sort of karma to songs. I'm damned if I'm going to get on a stage and say, "Pity poor me; I've got the blues." It's supposed to be a broad, shared experience.
What I do is the musical equivalent of a collage. I worked, for instance, between '70 and '72 or '73 with a couple of Nigerian musicians who took me right into the heart of the sensibility of African rhythms. And then, of course, I was exposed to all the Carribean things [Robert lived for 12 years in The Bahamas], and also the New Orleans things. And I really like the hands-on approach, so rather than my going out and finding a band that had a great feeling and spirit and trying to do something with it afterwards, I would do it myself.
99% of this stuff was built from the ground up. I had to figure out the drumbeat and put that down first, and a song would come along with the writing process, rather than going on a safari to collect an exotic piece of music.
GS: What is the idea behind putting all of these tracks together in one place?
RP: You started it [GS: I had suggested a new album of material dipping into the well of world music as Robert had done so well for so long]. I seem to remember when you mentioned it, I said, well, to actually go in that direction in particular for an entire new record would be a contrivance, which I couldn't attempt. But then when I gave it some thought, I saw, "Wow, I've got so many of these alternate versions, and really cool songs that have always been in the same vein ever since I started but that had always been tucked away at the back of my albums as one-offs." When I lifted the stuff out and started sifting through my archive, and listened to them as a whole, I realised that there was a continuous thread. As soon as I put 10 of them in a row, it was sort of an immediate party record around my house. They all go together. There must have been a more specific thouht-train or approach than I had been aware of.
GS: That is what I was wondering, if in putting it together there were any surprises. If, in a sense, it articulated something about your own output that you hadn't quite realised in this way before.
RP: The answer is yes. And it didn't seem to me that any of them were dabbling. They always got to the heart of the matter whether it was a highlife rhythm or something that was a hybrid of a merengue or soca, or whatever.
GS: Which brings me back to the title. This is not academic; it's good fun...
Housework begins with a kind of soukous guitar intro, slips right into soca, then there's something of a Cuban jazz piano solo. In a way it's a perfect introduction to the album; there's a bit of everything.
RP: And, of course, the lyric is a role reversal. You assume it's the husband that's gone out, but in the end you find out that it's the wife who comes back and he'd been doing all the housework.
How did that one start? With the bassline and the melody and then, once I had this down, there are three sections it moves between. The bass is really simple; it's just where it fits against the one. Then eveything else was just a lot of fun, trying things out that worked on top of it that suited the mood of the tune.
GS: Moving on to Charanga and the new a capella intro, it then slides right into a Cuban song, doesn't it?
RP: That one has a story. There is this Mexican restaurant in New York who took me to this hole in the wall in Alphabet City, something of a beatnik poet club for Cubans. This charanga band was on and I thought the spirit they generated was just fantastic. I aked if they wouldn't mind coming into the studio to record. I went back the next week with my little Dictaphone and recorded a couple of phrases that I liked, which were basically like Louie Louie backwards.
They hadn't been in the studio before, and the way that they went from section to section was cued by the leader with his timbale fills. I had to write the sections out by indicating their own work to them as a, b and c and then hold up a big card that said "A in 4 bars". And they didn't speak English, either. But that session worked out beautifully, just flew.
I already had the melodic idea together to this song, but when I put it on the one, it did sound like sort of a Spanish version of "Louie Louie", so I displaced the downbeat an eighth note, the same trick that I used on Deadline. The bass is playing upbeat triplets. You end up with something like one of those pictures - is it two profiles or a candlestick? - those visual tricks. As soon as I did that the whole thing just took off.
GS: So it turned into "Luis Luis".
RP: Yeah. It's the only example on the whole album where it's not basically me putting the track together from the bottom up, playing the instruments.
GS: Then we come to Woke Up Laughing, the original of which has always been one of my favourites. So where are we now?
RP: Zimbawe, the Shona people. The mbira was the inspiration for it, where the one player comes in and he's in 4/4, and then the next player waits to enter until the second bar. It's very apparent in mbira music because there are often just two players, and when I first heard it on vinyl they were one on each side of the stereo. I was just fascinated with it. I tried to recreate it.
GS: Thomas Mapfumo is Shona and he uses the same mbira rhythms as the basis for this music.
RP: Exactly. So when I tried to break it down I discovered how the pace of the two rhythms worked, but my problem was that the machine that I was using in 1978 to try and emulate it so that I could understand it only had 8 bars of memory. And of course the cycle requires 12 bars for the common denominator, for the one to come back. It was very frustrating, a lot of trial and error. But then, 10 years after the fact I re-recorded it and by the time we had played it live many times and understood how the rhythm cycled, rather than the first time around, when, not that it sounded it, but it was created artificially. It rattled a bit in the top.
GS: The first one is quite dense in its way and then the second almost strips it all bare once again, back to its skeleton. It's a lot more syncopated. And it seems like the vocal on the second weaves around the beat rather than the vocal of the first which is right on top of it.
RP: I think the major difference is - you know that Jamaican expression, "It's gone clear?". It means when you get a harmonic resonance and rhythmic coherence the song will "go clear" and the individual parts within it become invisible. You can no longer pick out who is doing what because the syncopation is so exact. I think that's the difference.
GS: "Gone clear" is a great phrase for that. What was it like trying to link the two versions?
RP: I call it a morph. Rhytmically it wasn't a problem because every twelve bars the cycle resumes. The main problem was the fidelity and the mixes. With ten years between them they were so vastly different. I didn't want to deconstruct them and put them back together mechanically, because it seemed redundant to me. I liked the fact that they were done then and felt like that then.
GS: On Aeroplane, it's kind of a samba cum bossa nova.
RP: Aeroplane I wrote in the corridor in an appartement I had briefly in Milan. I was moving house and my equipement was all stacked against a wall. I found an outlet and plugged in my tape recorder and wrote the whole thing in about 6 hours, start to finish, although I must say that the lyric probably took me a couple of months. One of the things that I love about Joao Gilberto - he's the king - is the Portuguese, because of the way that the language is structured and the vowel sounds and the fricatives and everything. I sang what I call "rhubarb" lyrics, which were the melody with the right vocal noises instead of words. Because, in writing it, it was a matter of making it sing right without being concerned with the lyrics, and then afterwards trying to find a lyric that sat with those vowel sounds.
GS: I'd like the air miles on this album, because, moving to History, we travel to South Africa and mbaqanga.
RP: Ladysmith Black Mambazo. When I was in the Bahamas I got a whole load of compilations from a producer who had been down there, township stuff. That song was written as an a capella piece and the only thing that I wrote to accompany it at the time was a reggae organ. When I mixed it I took away the right hand of the organ, so all you get is the upbeats in the left. Since it did all those movements with that tonality, I pushed it in that direction because it kind of rocks on its own. And then I sang what would be a guitar reggae backbeat.
GS: Now, is it my imagination or on these kinds of songs do you tend to use your voice more - or your voices more, I should say - than on your other material?
RP: Yes, when a piece like that gets stripped down that much and the whole energy of the rhythm has to rely on vocals, I get the opportunity to use bariton, tenor and falsetto all to create the whole range of events. So you have to find a way of inventing the parts so that it becomes a legitimate piece of singing. I have to dig through my arsenal to find an approach that feels good to perform, basically, rather than having to come up with a part that on its own is just an abstract noise.
GS: You don't want it to be eccentric.
RP: No, no. It has to be potentially performable. I mean, History probably has about 50 voices on it. I have to be able to walk around to a bunch of singers and teach them the parts. You figure out what you need and then find a way of interpreting it that is both fun to perform and actually has musical value.
GS: On this one you even get in a traditional role of the South African "groaner", that really deep voice.
RP: I enjoyed that a lot, singing out of the bottom of my shoes.
GS: That brings us to What's It Take. And I give up on that one, actually.
RP: That's me and my romance with Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey [from Nigeria, juju music]. I tried to put that lilt of Obey into a commercial song, a mainstream pop song with a verse, a chorus and a bridge in order to structure what is essentially in his music a 20-minute jam. The idea was to create some dynamic between the sections with the introduction of the fuzz guitar and formalise it into an a, b, c kind of pop song.
GS: Now, Pride seems to tip the hat to where you're currently living. Before going into a whole sort of pan-Carribean thing, is that a Swiss Yodel? Robert Palmer: No, the yodel harks back to Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. I like that kind of break in the voice.
RP: No, I think they'd revoke my residency. I particularly like the lyric to that song. I think it's one of the funniest lyrics I've written.
GS: Chance takes us back to Brazil and bossa nova. It's even got those breathy vocals that bossa nova is known for.
RP: Chance got written because I was reading an article about Duke Ellington. I'd been working with Teo Macero and we were talking about parallel chords where instead of having a chord that's augmented or diminished or whatever, you actually have two chords running together. I read bout this chord that featured in a Duke Ellington piece and I was fascinated that it had never crossed my mind. So I got the guitar out and tried it, an E-major over an F-minor. As soon as I played it, bingo, that song was there. It came straight away. The most bizarre thing of that song is that the melody enters a semi-tone above the root, so it took me a long time to pitch it in my head.
GS: And Honeymoon again, is another bossa nova.
RP: Another tribute to Joao Gilberto. I suppose one of the most difficult things about writing such an overtly romantic lyric is to paint a convincing picture with the sounds of the words so that they occur to you after the melody, like we were talking before about Portuguese. The work in that song was to get the lyric really smooth so that it would occur to you aferwards just what it was about, not having the story shoved in your face.
GS: I also like how the piano is completely restrained.
RP: That's Alan Mansfield playing. And we call that "Jobim raindrops".
GS: So, now, Best Of Both Worlds, a good reggae bassline...
RP: Abafana Behasquedini, you know them?
GS: From South Africa.
RP: With the bass drum being on the upbeat. It's a difficult thing to get a drummer to do since it goes against their total nature, you know?
GS: And Monogamy
RP: That's Francis Bebey's inspiration. In fact to the extent that there was an album I had by him and there was this 8-bar section where he had the main theme of the song, on a pygmy trumpet or something. That against, again, an upbeat bass drum, was a sort of starting point for me for the song. That and the chant.
GS: That bass drum reminds me of what the trap drummers do in juju music, that constant, pumping, regular beat from the right foot, non-stop.
RP: Yeah, exactly. And when I started knocking it into shape it confirmed that it was a bit of a lift, so I went and got in touch with Bebey's publishers in Paris with an idea of giving him a quarter of the tune [in royalties]. And, well it was all very dodgy and I couldn't get in touch with him. Finally when I did I sent him a tape of it and he said, "Well, I can't claim anything because I don't recognise anything of my work in it." [Laughs] Which was wonderful. I must have totally interpreted it.
GS: Honeybee has a real South African feel. There's a bit of jive in the main verses.
RP: I think that was inspired by a sojourn in Paris when I was on the graveyard shift in the studios, and the clubs that were open when we finished at 6 in the morning were African clubs. We'd go around. The whole song was based around the initial melody line. From there it was easy to develope the theme and the basic rhythm. Then, when I was recording it,whoever came into the studio, since it's so cyclic a song, I'd say, "Look, pick a track, find a pattern and just play the same thing all the way through it." And then afterwards it was like making a dub record, just punching the parts in and out that worked.
GS: That's the one that begins with the words "Two heads are better than one".
RP: That's from Gentlemen prefer blondes. That's Jane Russell talking to Marilyn Monroe.
GS: Are they actually their voices?
RP: Yeah, but we won't mention it.
GS: For a price. Casting a spell is sort of Amazonian grunge.
RP: That's a story. I was working with the amazing Dom Um Romao, and I had some basic ideas of what I thought he might do. For some reason or other he took it upon himself to take the song over. He said he only wanted to hear downbeat quarters on the bass drum, so I had the drummer Dony Wynn redo it. And then he spent the rest of the day laying tracks down, and they're all marvellous. At the end of the day, he said, "Now it's time for the birimbau.". He said he wanted a 30-second pre-roll and started with this chant. He had his German manager with him. Now, I hadn't seen my girlfriend for quite a while, and when he started singing this chant I asked his manager, "What is he singing?" The guy translated it for me. He said, "Your girlfriend Maria is missing you and she wants you to call her." And sure enough I got on the phone and she did. It was one of those magical things that Dom does - he's quite a remarkable guy. We were on the road with him for awhile. I noticed this strange thing that would happen with him. He would go ultra-violet, then transparent, then vanish and appear somewhere else. And of course I didn't say anything about this to anybody.
GS: Otherwise it's detox. time.
RP: Right. About six weeks into the tour we were all having a late night party and somebody said, "Hey, have you seen that weird thing that Dom does?" And I said, "What are you talking about?" "Well he goes kind of purple and disappears." And everybody said, "Oh, no, you mean that really happens?" We'd all seen it. Very, very peculiar fellow. Pretty much on his own planet.
GS: That brings us to Between Us, which is another nice samba but with almost Isaac Hayes strings.
RP: You get all kinds of feedback from different songs and they mean more or less to you. I mean, royalties are a nice kind of feedback. In this one instance, this couple was following me around when I was on tour. They would show up at all the dates. Eventually Cowboy the road manager said I should speak to them. They said, "Sorry to bother you, but we just wanted to show you this.". It was their wedding invitation and inside they'd printed the lyric to Between Us. That meant more to me than anything. They'd got it. The strings are by Clare Fischer, by the way.
Metro Blue - December 1997