Every once in a while, Robert Palmer pulls another hit out of the bag, and silences those critics who accuse him of being a pop dilettante. Currently riding high with his latest album Riptide, he spoke to Hank Bordowitz.
There are a lot of different views on what it's like to write and record a top 10 hit. Robert Palmer's Addicted To Love made number six in the UK charts, and the big number one in the US, and his response to its success is somewhat unique: "It's akin to being a father," Palmer muses, "except that there's no long term responsibilities".
Which is not to devalue Palmer's long term commitment to his music. He has had his flirtations with hits — most notably in 1982 with Some Guys Have All The Luck — and he picked up a passel of European fans with his experiments in Electro-Pop, music that Palmer claims "Kept me afloat in the rest of the world for the past five years.
"To a certain extent I feel vindicated by having a commercial success," he adds, "in that, those people who would constantly accuse me of self indulgence, I say boo to now.
"It would be vanity to suggest that my music was received as avant-garde during those Electro-Pop years," he elaborates. "It was regarded as being inaccessible and avant-garde in the States, but I don't really believe that. There's so many elements that go into crossing over from cult into more general acceptance, lots of them mechanical and business things. I've never compromised at all musically, despite whatever the fashion was. Now the wind's changed again, and I have more acceptance here in terms of record sales than I've ever had. Obviously it's a delightful side effect."
Palmer seems to delight in the fact that he has been one of those voices that has been creeping around at the edges of the Pop music consciousness throughout his career.
"It's nice to be in a position now where I can do a show and play a huge range of material, that perhaps half of the audience is unaware of. And at the same time, I often see couples in the audience nudging each other and saying 'Oh, it's him that does that.' They know the tunes, but it takes them by surprise that it's me that did them. I really like that. It means it's fresh and surprising. That's something I've built up to, and that's finally coming together."
It's this huge range of material that makes Palmer tough to pin down. He has made records in such widely different idioms as New Orleans Funk, full tilt Boogie and Synth-Pop. Yet, this isn't so much change for the sake of change as it is Palmer seeing the opportunity to do something interesting.
"Originally," he notes, "working with Little Feat and the Meters it was a matter of having to go to an existing rhythm section of which I was a fan, because I had neither the experience nor the craft of arranging and putting together a unit to make my sound more personal. In those situations, the tunes were sort of written with those particular bands in mind."
These days, people seek out Robert Palmer. "Now the phone rings and it's somebody dropping by," he marvels. "I don't go looking for musical projects, they come looking for me. If we get on as personalities and they happen to play an instrument, then we plug in. It just happens."
One of these exercises in karmic energy was last year's association with the Power Station. Some might suggest that his current success is on the coat-tails of that collaboration, but Palmer isn't so sure.
"It's one of these chicken-and-egg things", he declares. "The current thing that I'm doing (his Riptide tour) is giving me a lot more visibility than that did. When I look at the audience, really only 10% are obvious Power Station fans.
"On the other hand," he concedes, "since I decided to make a movie, which was, I guess, a year ago last summer, then everything I've attempted has been a notch up. But I'm really not interested in cause and effect. Things either happen of themselves or not at all. I've taken a lot of time to develop a whole load of different issues that I was working on. That, in fact turned out to be the current album, Riptide. Right in the middle of that, the Power Station came up. It was all sort of one thing, I guess. It's really difficult for me to put it into some sort of perspective. Obviously MTV has something to do with the exposure, but I think there is an inappropriate significance attached to the Power Station thing."
If that's true, maybe the time had just come for Robert Palmer. Certainly, the all-pervasive power of Rock video couldn't hurt the handsome singer, and the power station was significant in that it marked his reappearance after over two years of self-imposed silence following the release of his album Pride.
He spent the bulk of that time, until he decided to "make a move," making demos in his home studio.
"I have a work habit that I keep up," he relates, "almost on a hobby level. My rig goes on every day, and I mess around with things and put down grooves, whatever comes into my head. I keep the work habit up, so when the muse strikes, I'm in a position to turn the machines on and catch it before the dream gets distorted. You know, often you hear the thing in your head, and by the time you've fished out an instrument and put it down, you've lost it. It's like when you wake up in the morning and forget the dream that was so clear to you the second before. I just keep it working all the time, so when I get a clear idea, I jump on it right away and record the thing I hear in my head. Because of having the system at home, I can be more productive, and less inclined to inflict my experiments on the audience.
"I'm more and more interested in communicating. Without the opportunity to come up with reasonable product at home, the only opportunity you get to make music and assess it one way or the other is when you get a recording project. If you spend hours and dollars making material, but it's only halfway there, by the time you've got in the studio, you might push something through that doesn't really deserve it, and you end up embellishing it to make it go. Whereas having the ability to do that at home, you can get that all out of the way. For Riptide I had 40 songs to pick from."
Robert Palmer on the Riptide musicians:
On Drums: "I would say, without a doubt, that Tony Thompson is the best bass drum player I've ever worked with, alongside Ed Green. He has this way of playing, always on the edge of swinging, even if the tune's in straight time."
On Guitar: In addition to playing a fine crunchy Heavy Metal riff, Palmer asserts, "Eddie Martinez also plays the best Funk chops around."
On Keyboards: "Wally (Badarou) is a neighbour of mine, and we'd wanted to work together for ages. We live in the Bahamas and he lives upstairs and he just came down and that was that."
On Bass & Drums: "Bernard (Edwards) and Tony are obviously a team. Bernard suggested we bring Tony and it just fell together."
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