Interviews

Interview: Al Kooper, March 1994, WMMR Studios, PA.

al-kooper-resize This interview was done the last week of March in 1994 at what at the time, the studio of WMMR, once the number one FM rock radio station in Philly. Al Kooper, at the time a Nashville resident was in town to promote a new album ReKooperation , an instrumental album that was a tribute to the organ masters of the ’50s and ’60s who’d inspired him from Jimmy Smith to Bill Doggett to Booker T.

The album on an indie company, MusicMasters came and went pretty quickly and so did the label. As this interview will show, Kooper didn’t expect more than that.

Kooper was great to interview because not only does he answer questions in a totally direct manner, he’s also hysterically funny. At times it was hard to ask the next question because he kept me cracked up and also quite at ease from the minute I walked in the door. I was his last interview that day and at the time the music industry seemed dominated by people wearing vinyl baseball warm-up jackets that usually had the name of a company on the latest promotion on them so when I walked in wearing a beat-up leather jacket and cowboy boots, Kooper said, “You’re the most refreshing sight I’ve seen all day,” and he meant it.

Parts of this interview were originally published in a long-gone weekly paper in Philadelphia on April 6, 1994 . Sometime after that, a friend of mine posted parts of it as part of a discussion on the Usenet group, Rec.Music.Dylan. Those parts later found their way much to my astonishment into the English Dylan magazine, Isis .

Keep in mind this was done more than eleven years ago. Kooper no longer lives in Nashville , recently released a new album, and some of the people mentioned here are no longer around and even Warner Brothers Records isn’t really Warner Brothers Records anymore.

Why did you move to Nashville ?

So I could semi-retire. I thought there was no danger of me getting involved in country music. I thought I’d be relatively safe there, no danger of them even wanting to be involved with me, even though myself and Bill Szymczyk made the two records that all country music is modeled after in the ’90s, and we were doing them at the same time at the same studio. He was in studio A, I was in studio B at the record plant, he was doing (the Eagles’) Hotel California, and I was doing (Skynyrd’s) Second Helping.

What changes have you seen in Nashville in the almost 30 years since you first went there to do Blonde on Blonde?

Not much. It’s a little more cosmopolitan, but it’s still a great place to live. I love living there.

I was at SXSW in Austin

That’s not Nashville . I’ve lived in Austin ,. That’s a great place to live also, but you can’t make a fucking penny there. It’s just hopeless.

…and they were talking about the music business may be shifting out of L.A.

It has to. I won’t go back to L.A. Forget about it. I was in the earthquake. That was the start of my bad winter.

Well, it wasn’t a great winter here either.

I went to a bunch of places. Every place I went to, I had a fucking disaster.

Are you planning to tour behind this new album?

I’m trying to figure out how to do it. It always ends up costing me money which is why I don’t do it more often. I gotta figure out a way to do it ’cause I really want to go out and play. The kind of show I wanna put on, I gotta take six other musicians with me, and it’s like… you can’t make any money. You can’t even break even. I’ll break even, okay. So if I could figure out how to do that, I’d do that for a living because I love to play. And the business is so fucked up that I can’t go out and play. I can’t do what it is that I do.

What led you to make an all instrumental album?

It’s just something I always wanted to do. I just had to find the right moment for. And this is the right moment. I really had nothing at stake ’cause I hadn’t made a record in so long.

The album has a more of a sense of history to than some of your other albums, like when you talk in the notes about going to see the jazz guys at Birdland. I always figured you to be more of a rock n’ roll guy, goin’ back to “This Diamond Ring” and the Royal Teens.

I am. But I had a jazz period, from ’60 to ’64 and on Act Like Nothing’s Wrong, I dedicated the album to its influences, and listed all the people who influenced, so people knew what it was that I listened to. I’m never trying to hide. This was an opportunity, I try and make the packages, see I’m a fan. I’m a fan of King’s X, I like the new Sound Garden , I go out and I buy CDs. So being a fan, when I make a record, I try and make it like what do I want to see in this record if I’m buying an Al Kooper record. So I put those things in there because I thought people would be sincerely interested in it if they were fans.

I sense a kind of disgust with the music industry.

I hate the music industry. The fact that I found a place where I can do what I do without going through all the fucking idiocy of the music business is really nice at this point in my life, because I just turned 50 and I just reached that stage where nothing is worth anything to me, where it’s like if I gotta go through this, then fuck it, I’ll stay home and play with my computer. I’m not gonna go and put up with anything any more. I don’t have to. And so I won’t. So, I do just what I wanna do, and that’s all.

Do you think the music business has dramatically changed?

No. The major companies, they all have a policy of getting away with as much murder as they can. And it’s always been that way. It’s just that as time goes by they can get away with less and less murder. But for guys like me who have product on their label, but they don’t deal with me anymore, they still fuck with me. They still don’t pay me and stuff like this. So that goes on, that still exists. That never changes and it never will. Now that CDs are out and there’s so much catalog stuff selling, these guys are making so much fucking money you wouldn’t believe it. And none of these people (the musicians) are getting paid. They just don’t pay you.

It seems the major record companies are more in the hands of accountants and lawyers

Not Warner Brothers. That’s second generation record business. Lenny Waronker, his father ran Liberty Records in the ’50s, so what better guy to run a record company than a guy whose father did? So the next generation is more honest than the last one, so that’s a good thing. Have you ever seen this guy Al Teller that runs MCA? Have you ever seen a picture of him? Would you put your career in the hands of a guy that combs his hair like that? I mean, get outta here.

He did that album Rhythm Country and Blues.

I like the Al Green/Lyle Lovett track.

The originals are obviously better.

Well of course, but I’d have to say that about my album too. You do what you can. They didn’t do it ‘cause they loved it. They did it ’cause it was a fucking scam.

What I mean is that there aren’t any producers around like John Hammond. He may have been one of a kind…

He definitely was one of a kind. I knew him very well. I liked him a lot.

He was obviously into if for the music.

I hate to say this. I think Don Was is. But he produced that record, so I don’t know.

I go up and down on Don Was’ productions.

So does Don Was.

You played organ on the album he produced for Dylan, what were those sessions like.

They were nice. I liked the sessions because I was really in an ‘I could give a fuck’ mood. At that point in my life, it was no big deal to play with Bob, and so I sat back and kind of watched all the other people get that buzz. I enjoyed it for that reason. I was very comfortable. Bob and I had become like really good friends, we understand each other perfectly well. And so it was less than no pressure. I was just looking at my watch to make sure I could see the basketball game. But I like my playing on it. I’m very happy with my playing on it. I think he phoned the lyrics on that album. But I think that’s the only thing really wrong with that record is the words are like really silly and the rest of the record’s good. I think Don did a great job on that record, myself, but Bob didn’t. So, you can’t win.

What’s really interesting is they’re putting out the stuff from England from the ’66 tour with the Hawks, and that’s some of the greatest rock and roll ever made in the history of rock and roll and that will vindicate probably Dylan to this generation that has no idea why people think he’s great. It’s scary how good that stuff is.

You decided you didn’t want to do that tour?

I decided I didn’t want to do that tour, but I was gonna get kicked out anyway because they were bringing the rest of the Band in. Levon and Robbie wanted to bring the rest of their guys in. Me and Harvey Brooks didn’t have other guys to bring in. We were just partners.

What’s Harvey Brooks been up do all these years?

Beats me, but he and I grew up together. We went to public school together, so any chance I can play with him, I wanna do that, and he’s like a monstrously good player now, not that he wasn’t then. He’s so good it’s scary. I love playing with him because it’s a treat musically. Plus he’s a year younger than me and he looks twice as old as I do.

A couple of years ago you did a Blues Project reunion, do you foresee any more of them?

You can only play a few places with them. You can play San Francisco, New York and Cleveland. I’m serious. That’s where Blues Project fans were. We were big in those three cities. All the people that liked us that are still alive will come see us in those three cities. But to go to Los Angeles, you would just bomb!

I always thought they just should’ve been a folk rock band, doing stuff like “Fly Away.” Did you have any problems along those lines?

No, they played whatever I wrote or whatever anybody brought in. We didn’t fight over it. At the end, I brought songs in and said, I want to add horns. They said, ‘No, we don’t want to do that. We’ll do the songs, but we don’t want to do them with horns. We don’t want to bring more people into the band.’ So that’s why I put together Blood Sweat & Tears, ‘cause I had this bunch of songs that needed horns. But they would’ve done the songs.

It just seemed to be it wasn’t a blues band like in the same sense as Butterfield.

No, definitely, but that’s good, because there was a Butterfield Band, so there didn’t need to be, and Butterfield certainly couldn’t have done “Fly Away.” We always got compared with them, but that’s just ’cause it was the closest place. We were all good friends and we played this great week in New York at the Cafe Au Go Go and that was really something.

What was it like playing with Mike Bloomfield?

It was great. We were good pals. We knew what we wanted to do, we could do it and we’d have great fun. We never really went over our heads, and just did what we knew how to do.

I remember hearing Bloomfield on Murray the K’s show around the time Electric Flag came out, and he was raving about the production on Blood Sweat & Tears first album. He really thought you caught the sound.

Those bands weren’t in competition either. He was doing pretty much a Stax/Volt copy band. I was all over the place as usual. Chicago on the other hand, was doing what I was trying to do, and they were doing it better than I was doing it. So I was glad when I left the band, I was glad somebody was doing what I was trying to do. I didn’t feel so bad that I wasn’t doing it anymore.

Chicago never did anything like “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know.”

That’s just a blues song. The bridge to that song, Chicago could’ve done that. The bridge was a little more ambitious. The thrill for me with that was when Donny Hathaway cut it. That was very rewarding.

Did you play organ on “Sooner or Later”? That was cut in New York right?

That was the only song on the album cut in New York. It was a hybrid of Highway 61 and the Hawks.

Was that a scary thing for you when you went in to do Highway 61 and Paul Griffin was there?

The first session, yeah. But after that I felt comfortable because they asked me to be there. The first one I wasn’t really asked to be there, I had to do some bullshit to be on it. Blonde on Blonde, I was very comfortable.

At the time, did you know those albums would have the impact they ended up having?

I knew Blonde on Blonde did. I didn’t understand about Highway 61 till after it came out. But when we were making Blonde on Blonde, I knew because of what happened with Highway 61 that it was music that was gonna live forever.

The trouble with Blonde on Blonde is it lists the musicians but not what they play. On “Memphis Blues Again,” there’s at least three guitars.

The cool guitar on “Memphis Blues Again,” the Curtis Mayfield kind of licks, that’s Joe South. Some of the really cool stuff, like that fast guitar lick on “I Want You,” that’s Wayne Moss. He played some of the really cool stuff. On “You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine,” Charlie McCoy played bass and trumpet at the same time ’cause Bob didn’t want to overdub the instruments. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen anybody play bass and trumpet at the same time — I never have since then, but it’s pretty interesting.

They did most of those songs in one take, like “Sad Eyed Lady.”

That was done very late at night. So was “Just Like a Woman,” like three, four, five in the morning. Sometimes we’d go to the studio and he’d just sit out there and write for five hours, and we’d play ping pong or go eat or something.

Has he changed his recording style over the years?

He might overdub his vocals, but that’s good. I don’t think that’s bad.

Are you surprised he’s putting out records of old folk songs?

I’m not surprised at all. I don’t think he feels like writing, so that would be the logical thing to do. I like those records better than some of the other stuff he’s done. They’re like his version of Unplugged. The music that influenced him, it’s a good look at his past. Like, where does this guy come from. This is where he came from.

You also worked on New Morning which gets overlooked.

I actually produced that, but didn’t get credit for that.

I thought it was his piano album.

Some of them did. He played on “Sign on the Window.” I love his piano playing. I’m a big big fan of his piano playing. Some of his piano playing influenced me. I wish he’d play more piano.

Are you into the changes in keyboard technology? On the album you’re mostly playing a Hammond B3?

That’s cause I’m playing old music. If I was playing new music I’d use new keyboards.

Do you have any plans to record new music?

What’s the point? I’m into doing what I do best, or doing what people will pay money to see me do.

If you toured, would you just do the stuff that’s on your album?

I’d do songs from my past. I think people would be really pissed off if I didn’t sing. I think people will probably be pissed off I didn’t sing on this record. I once went to see Allen Toussaint, and he didn’t sing, I wanted to break his fucking head. He’s a great piano player and stuff, but he’s also a great singer, not that I’m a great singer. So if somebody comes to see me, I’m sure they expect me to sing. If I don’t sing, I’ll do them and me a disservice. That’s why I sang one song on this album. I shouldn’t have.

The song that hit me right off is the Richard Thompson song (“When the Spell is Broken”) because it wasn’t something that you’d necessarily think of as an instrumental song.

Richard Thompson would be giant if people could get used to his voice. That’s what’s held him back. He sings with I don’t know what kind of accent that is, English, Celtic, Scottish, it’s something that ain’t normal, and he won’t compromise, and his voice is like Dylan’s in that it’s an acquired taste. You wouldn’t just hear it and go that guys great. You really gotta warm up to his voice. Once you do, you’re there. I’m there. Personally, I like his first three major label records, and then he’s starting to lose me with the other ones. I find it really hard to find something to hang my hat on this record.

I’m not a big Mitchell Froom fan.

Nor am I. He’s discounting the fact that this guy’s a brilliant fucking guitar player. I say let the guy play. You wrote a song? Good. Sing it. But play a long fucking guitar solo and kill me because you’re the best guitar player walking the fucking earth. That’s what I object to on the Mitchell Froom records. But, I can get my fix when I go see him live. Because he’s the greatest fucking guitar player, he shreds. I’m like a groupie. Since Hendrix, he’s the guy for me. He does things that no one else can do. And he’s got a brilliant fucking mind musically speaking. He just kills me. It’s right up my alley. I love it.

Is there anybody else around that you feel that way about?

I like the guy in King’s X too. He’s a great player. That band’s a killer. Did you like the first Living Colour album? That’s what these guys are doing and Living Colour dropped the ball. They can do what Living Colour does and wipe them fucking out, plus they have this other side where they can sound like the fucking Beatles which is great.

You view rock n’ roll as a whole?

It’s all rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a big umbrella. That’s why it’s great. I don’t call Billy Joel rock ‘n’ roll. I’ll tell you that. Just give me a good fucking song. You can be as an anti professional as you want. Nirvana is a good example of that. That guy writes some fucking songs. So he can do whatever he wants. And the guy’s got an interesting voice, you can tell who it is right away, even if you can’t sing. If I can turn on the radio, hear your voice and know that’s you, that’s a good thing. He’s got that. He’s got an identifiable sound and he’s a good songwriter. You can go to the bank with that every time. It worked for Ronnie Van Zandt, it worked for Kurt Cobain. The Sound Garden record, the new one, to me it sounds like Led Zep sideways. I really like it. I think it’s a very retro record, and I’m gonna like that ‘cause that’s the music I came up with. My favorite band of all time is Free. I like that better than the Beatles, Stones, King’s X, Sound Garden, anything that there ever was. Find me somebody that can play better than that and it’ll be a fucking miracle.

Are you doing any work in Nashville?

Once in a while somebody will call me to play on a record. I played on a bunch of Trisha Yearwood records. Last week I did Tracy Nelson’s new album. That was thrilling for me because I’m a very big fan of hers and I see her around town all the time, and we’ll sit in a bar and talk all night because we come from the same era. I was just delighted that she called me. I did three nights with her and guys that I know from town. It was just like a Highway 61 record. Wham bam, thank you, next song. She’s a great fucking singer, she’s very special. There’s nobody that can do what she does. She don’t need a fucking microphone. She can sing louder than anybody I know can play. She can singer louder than Hendrix could play. A great fucking voice.

You did a session with Hendrix.

We did a lot of jamming, after-hours stuff, tons of that. But I only played on “Long Hot Summer Nights” on Electric Ladyland, which is not one of the highlights of my career, or his. I’m just not ambitious. When I started out I was like 90% ambition and 10% talent, and now it’s completely reversed itself.

Judging by this album, it’s had a positive effect on your music.

What does?

Not being as ambitious.

This record knows the day it comes out that it doesn’t have a fucking chance commercially. I wish that more people would hear this record because I think they would enjoy it, but it’s set up in such a way — the politics of music today — that they won’t hear it. But at least it’s out there. I did it. I’m very happy with it, and it that respect it’s a successful record for me.

What do you see as the politics of music today?

The fact that you have to have a format or a category. You can’t just put a record out, because if it doesn’t fall into their little cubby holes, then they don’t know what to do with it. Some really good records could get fucked like that. What’s this band, Beautiful People? I don’t know if it’s good or not. It should be played more. It tracks interesting. But they don’t know what to do because of their categories and cubby holes. There’s a few bastions of old time radio around. This guy, Ed Sciacki, he’s got a show where they’ll play fucking anything, Vince Scelsa’s got one in New York, and Bonnie Simmon’s has one in San Francisco. When I first moved to Nashville, there was a great radio station, RLT, but now they’re playing classic rock in addition to the shit that they were playing. So it’s lost it for me. They were doing great stuff. They were playing Triple A before there was a triple A. They were playing new music that I enjoyed hearing and would never have heard if they weren’t playing. So I was learning about new bands that I would never have listened to, because I didn’t know that they sounded like that which is a great format.

I bought the Sound Garden album because I’d read about it. Usually if I do that, I end up selling it. I didn’t even like In Utero, I was disappointed in that. But the most important thing of all is that I’m worried that I like the Sound Garden thing. For them, not for me. Because they’re gig is to piss me off is to piss me off because I’m a parent. I’m 50 years old. If they make music that I like, then they’re fucking up . They have to aggravate me to be really doing their job right. If I like it, there’s something wrong. If my parents had liked Dylan, I would’ve fainted. And I probably wouldn’t have liked it. If I call up my son and say, ‘That Sound Garden album is just killer , man,” he’d go, “well, I don’t like it so much, and tell me how great Blind Melon is and Widespread Panic, and I’ll puke.

About the author

Peter Stone Brown

Peter Stone Brown is a Songwriter and Journalist.

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