All images courtesy of Howlin’ Wuelf Media
Recently, I had the pleasure of chatting with the ever-interesting bassist extraordinaire, Bob Lord to discuss, among other things, what he’s been up to during the lockdown, his newest music, his thoughts on the music scene going forward, and what he’s looking forward to the most once COVID-19 breaks.
If you would like to learn more about Bob Lord, or his longtime band, Dreadnaught, you can head over to the band’s website here. Once you’ve done that, check out this interview with Bob. Cheers
Bob, I appreciate you taking the time to speak with us. How have you been holding up over the course of the tumultuous events of the last year, or so?
Thanks so much, the pleasure is all mine. To put it simply, I’m one of the lucky ones. This past year has been a massive challenge for everybody, and particularly those in the arts, but I’ve managed to find my way through A-OK. **knock on wood.** I’m very fortunate to be the CEO of PARMA Recordings, a music production company with a staff of three dozen around the world which I founded in 2008, so the flexibility of our staff and their unbelievable dedication during this crisis is the reason why we were able to keep producing, keep recording, keep creating.
Before we dive into your professional career, I wanted to touch on your roots. How did it all begin for you? What got you hooked on music?
I loved music from the time I was a little kid, from 50s Rock ‘N’ Roll on the local oldies station to Jazz on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood to Classical on Tom & Jerry and Looney Tunes, but when I heard The Who play, and I watched and heard these insane sounds being produced by John Entwistle and Pete Townshend, I thought, “This is what I want to do with my life.”
Years later, my band opened for Entwistle in 2001 at one of his very last shows, and then I subsequently co-produced an album with Pete Townshend, which my company released almost a decade ago. My formative dreams really have come true, and I think if I told the 12-year old Bob about all this he would have been both totally delighted and simultaneously wondering what the hell took so long.
Where did the bass come into play? What was the moment, or series of events that led you to that instrument in particular? Are there any players who have informed your style the most? You play an 8-string base, right? What led to that choice as opposed to traditional 4-string setups?
Entwistle was the first bassist who essentially forced me to pick up the instrument, but before that players like McCartney, Duck, Jamerson had already caught my ear. So, once I added Geddy, Squire, Levin, and all those guys on top of that, I realized I genuinely enjoyed all these disparate styles – and should use them. Then I started listening to Copland, Stravinsky, Don Ellis, Miles Davis, and, well, after 30 years, somehow ended up sounding like Playland Arcade.
I split my time between a variety of 4 and 8-strings, and in the last few years have skewed toward the 8-string. I’ve played in all kinds of groups of various sizes, but bass/guitar/drums have always been a comfortable format for me, a space where we all have room to explore in terms of both content and tone, and the 8-string offers fantastic coverage and dimension.
This is true particularly in a studio setting where bass parts can be arranged to maximum effect in the stereo and EQ field – I can’t think of many tracks at all that I’ve done in the last three decades which have fewer than half a dozen distinctly different bass parts on them, some with many more. I’ve always been partial to a Queen/Brian May-inspired orchestral approach to studio production.
With all of that aside, let’s dig into your new record. Tell us more about Playland Arcade. You’re well known for your work within Dreadnaught, so what can fans expect with this new solo offering?
This is a producer’s record through and through, and my goal was to make an album which could present all the kaleidoscopic colors and styles which I’ve come to adore over the years, from high-octane bass-driven Prog to gossamer orchestral arrangements to minimalist Electronic Music and even a new take on an old standard or two. The record is in many ways a mix-tape of the beachfront boardwalk here in my hometown and a love letter to the arcade where I’ve spent way too much time and money since I was a kid. Those sounds, smells, tastes, and visions are all over this record. Everybody’s got their own “Skee Ball,” right?
Digging a bit deeper into Playland Arcade now, let’s talk about your inspiration in songwriting. You’ve always leaned toward the more experimental side of things, and this is no exception. As you’ve just alluded to, I heard touches of Prog, Jazz, retro Pop, and even some Orchestral touches. So, with all that said, what was the inspiration for this record? How did these arrangements come together?
While the music was all newly recorded, I handpicked a few of my own existing demos which I felt would be interesting anchors (“Siege”), composed some new material (“Fry Doe”), recast other pieces in different ensemble formats (“Lobster Roll”), and selected a couple of covers which I felt added to the whole vibe (“The Backward Swan,” a great forgotten surfing tune by Duane Eddy!).
I like music that makes me laugh. Not necessarily because it is humorous – and this is coming from a guy who truly adores NRBQ’s most ridiculous deconstructions, still listens to the first WWF The Wrestling Album, and who also has a 7-second song on this release – but because it is audacious, bold, witty, exhilarating, delicate, sublime. I like being in awe, I like being disoriented, I like being confused because then every tiny bit of clarity packs an immense amount of power. That’s what I’m hoping to offer to listeners like me with this album.
Bass guitar has always been central to my musical identity, and even as I went deeper and deeper into composition and production I would find myself constantly coming back to the instrument. So, I made a conscious decision to change that and to work on producing music of my own in which I’m not playing, in which my hands have less of a musical role than my mind and ears – and those of others like Jamie Perkins from The Pretty Reckless on drums, Duncan Watt on keys, the orchestra, the conductor, my longtime collaborator and engineer Jon Wyman, and more. I think I’m only actually physically performing on a relatively small percentage of the overall musical material.
My experiences as a Classical music producer over the last 15+ years, in which I’ve I become totally and completely immersed in the scores of living composers and recording them with the greatest fidelity, coupled with my decision to make the bass a complement rather than a focus of my own stuff, all ended up decentralizing my view of what “composition” is. Control is an odd thing – by giving more agency to performers, by allowing collaborators not to just do what you want but to meaningfully evolve your ideas, by expanding the definition of what constitutes a musical identity, I believe it ends up being more than the sum of the parts. It is as true for a music producer as it is for a business manager.
After all these years with Dreadnaught, and many accolades, what led you to want to branch out on your own with Playland Arcade? Why now? Do you feel you had a statement to make artistically that you couldn’t or haven’t been able to make with Dreadnaught? If so, what is it?
I think it is not so much about branching out on my but rather practicing what I preach. I’ve been involved in somewhere near a thousand commercially released projects at this point, and although I keep a firm separation of church and state – my role as CEO of PARMA has nothing to do with my own stuff, you will never see any of my personal material anywhere near the company’s work and products, and the same is true of our staff – I feel it is important to keep evolving, to keep pushing, to keep stretching, because that’s what I ask of the artists I represent. And when you have your collaborators doing the same, that’s when the magic happens.
With Dreadnaught, we are a group of instrumentalists, we write together, we play off each other, and with so many recordings and gigs in our rearview mirror, our creative process has been refined to the point that we barely need to talk when we’re together. It’s like Asimov’s Second Foundation, we just sit there and wriggle one ear or something and this crazy Dreadnaught music just starts to happen. To paraphrase Keith Moon, we are absolutely the best Dreadnaught-style band out there. In a genre of one, we are the tops.
I wanted to touch on Dreadnaught as well. It’s been a wonderful ride so far, right? Where do things stand with the band? Are you sort of taking a break from that arena, or are you hard at work there too?
This year is our 25th anniversary and we’ve got a new record in the can ready for release in late summer called Northern Burner. It’s a crystallization of what we do best, an instrumental through-composed piece with squealing peals of guitars and basses, spacetime-destroying drums, and totally freaky keys and effects.
As far as gigs, we’re hoping to hit the stage in the Fall at The Music Hall in Portsmouth NH for the “Writers On A New England Stage” series, where we’ve been the house band for almost 16 years now. We just recorded a version of the theme song of the series for New Hampshire Public Radio, that should be out a little later this year via Spotify and other platforms.
Let’s go in a bit of a different direction now. The landscape of popular music has shifted immensely over the last decade or so, and it is ever-shifting still beyond that. What that being said, in a world so dominated by social media and the talent pool sort of being diluted in a way, how hard is it for you and other artists to make themselves heard amongst the chaos?
Excellent question. The landscape has completely changed, but it was of course going off the rails before the pandemic. When I was growing up in the 80s and 90s, there was a general feeling that even a third-rate musician in a fourth-rate band could still potentially make first-rate royalties, assuming you simply got signed and didn’t die before you got old, of course.
Well, that went out the window, didn’t it? The fundamental alteration in the economic structure of the average working musician as a result of the digital music revolution meant that live, point-of-purchase sales opportunities – meaning, concerts – became almost singularly important, a situation which was promptly decimated by the virus. Whether the pendulum swings back (and again this year we see vinyl hitting new sales heights, no matter how “efficient” the user experience compared to digital), I’m not sure.
I feel it is crucial to understand that nobody can compete on every playing field all the time and get anything resembling a decent result. Even the most massively popular artists now no longer achieve the degree of market penetration as they did in past decades, largely due to the sheer signal-to-noise ratio to which you allude. When was the last time that an album dominated a news cycle?
On the subject of digital, it’s become sort of common knowledge that services like Spotify and Apple Music do not pay artists well in the slightest. What are your thoughts on that? How can fans support the artists they love better? Or are we too far gone for it to matter?
I’m of a few minds about this. On one hand, the market has long told musicians to what extent it feels music is a valuable commodity. We are told this via metrics, via numbers, via revenue, via market share. This of course has nothing to do with artistic merit, I’m talking purely about commodities.
The issue is that those metrics are being skewed tremendously by the platforms and aggregators, by the non-music companies without a whit of artistic impetus which are now in charge of music, and bending and altering what we are hearing from the market. If you suddenly took Michael McDonald’s music away from the world en masse, I think the response would be a much more accurate take on a certain demographic’s valuation of music than anything we see in the numbers.
But all these platforms, all these structures, all these opportunities, they are all simply tools to achieve an end, so it’s vital to think about what your intended outcome is and then very carefully pick your spots. You can use a shoe to hammer in a nail, you can use it to throw at a politician when they say something stupid, or you can use it to cover your feet when you walk. Don’t blame a hammer because you can’t put it on. You can’t bop into 3 or 4 record shops in any American town anymore, it’s just the way it is.
And I do feel that consumers should support the things that they love, otherwise they’ll simply fade away. Arts, culture, food, travel, music… turns out that for a lot of the world the things I hold most dear were considered non-essential until suddenly the world realizes how much it misses the things that are now gone.
COVID has basically arrested all of our lives for over a year now, and as a result, there has been next to no live music. So, as a veteran of the road, what do you miss most about taking the stage? If you miss it at all that is.
I miss live music and I miss performing with my colleagues, this is the longest stretch I’ve gone without playing a live gig since I was in my early teens. We played one gig outdoors in August and that was it since last winter. What an odd feeling for us all, right? Audiences and performers are going to have to get used to it again.
I’m the music producer of Wild Symphony, the new illustrated children’s book and orchestral album by Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code. We had dozens of performances set in about a dozen countries for 2020, and while we had to postpone virtually all of them, we did indeed premiere the piece with an orchestral concert in Zagreb Croatia. To have successfully pulled that off, for us to get over there, for Dan to narrate the work live, for it to be streamed (you can still see the concert on Dan’s Facebook page), everyone to have remained safe and healthy, that was an adventure for the ages. And it made me more determined than ever to get back what we had before the virus.
What are a few albums/artists that mean the most to you, and why?
There are hundreds of albums in dozens of genres I could rattle off right now which mean the world to me, yet I can’t help but immediately think of Steely Dan’s Gaucho.
I’m almost 45 years old, and every day that goes by I realize how little I knew the day before. When I was young, my first exposure to Steely Dan came primarily through being in Marshall’s or TJ Maxx with Mom on her shopping excursions. This was the early 80s, so it was all “Peg” and “FM,” legwarmers, pastels, and shoulder pads and shit. I hated it.
Then I got to high school in 1990 and I hated it even more. The production really irked me at the time, I was deep into Otis Redding, Peter Gabriel, and Zeppelin, and if I heard the first chord of “Babylon Sisters” I wretched.
Then something happened along the way and I found a few tunes that felt much different to me, “Do It Again” being one of them. So, bit by bit I began to get into the records, digging into the deeper cuts, eventually just gobbling up everything and jumping into the pool headfirst, margarita and all.
But not GAUCHO. I drew the line there. Never GAUCHO.
During this time I began to play in a side project for fun which only did Steely Dan stuff. As any player will tell you, once you must learn precisely what is happening in any piece of music, whatever your opinion of it is, you are delivered a substantially different perspective on the work. This is most especially true of Steely Dan.
So, a little slice of Gaucho was inserted here and there into the setlist, and just like being inoculated, I started to develop some immunity.
When we actually played the album front to back, it was a revelation. It’s an utterly perfect album, full of small details and big ideas alike, sweet and tart and funky. When I got the sheet music to “Time Out of Mind” and realized exactly how little the bass was playing, and how extremely particular all the patterns were, I threw my hands in the air and said, “I WAS WRONG, I WAS WRONG!”
It was a good feeling.
What other passions do you have? How do those passions inform your music, if at all?
Food, eating it, and cooking it. It’s the only way I can make the voices stop.
Last one. You’ve had a long, varied and multilayered career. With that said, what advice would you have for young artists looking to take the plunge into the deep end of music?
There is no one right way to do this, no one way to make a living in the business, no one way to succeed. Each path is extremely individual, and what works for one person won’t necessarily work for another. It’s important to both follow your gut and to pay attention to your surroundings because I can tell you right now that where I’ve ended up artistically, as a producer, as a composer, as a CEO, as a manager, this crazy Playland Arcade record – it is not at all what I expected when I picked up the bass for the first time. Keep your ears wide open and you’ll never miss a beat.
Interested in learning more about Bob Lord? Check out the link below:
Dig this interview? Check out the full archives of Vinyl Writer Interviews, by Andrew Daly, here: www.vinylwritermusic.com/interview