Guitarist, July 1992
by Danny Eccleston
With the reformation of the legendary Television, 1992 is proving to be Tom Verlaine’s busiest year in the last ten. Taking time off from mixing the long-awaited third TV LP, the post-punk guitar genius broadcasts live from New York to talk sounds, songs and solos. Danny Eccleston tunes in…|
Tom Verlaine, we put it to you that you are a 24-carat, card-carrying rock’n’roll enigma. Tom Verlaine laughs. In fact Tom Verlaine laughs like a drain. “I am! I am an enigma unto myself!” This is unexpected. Tom Verlaine snickers, snarfs and guffaws as often as he furrows his brow for a thoughtful reply. Most of all, Tom Verlaine laughs at himself. This is certainly no way for an elusive poet of rock to behave…
“I was talking to a journalist in Germany the other day and she said, you’re the most evasive person I’ve ever spoken to! And I don’t know why she said that. Often you try to reply to a question, but it’s not really the answer to the question – rather, it’s about what they wanna know. It’s not so specific, and people get strange sometimes.”
Some people clearly like to see Tom Verlaine this way. His wraith-like frame has always oozed a distant other-worldliness and there was never much of the Hello Clevelands about Tom. And then, of course, there’s his guitar playing – guitar playing which, for many, turned the world upside down. Cool and yet often scathing, emotional yet strangely precise, it’s a sound which jumps out from the groove of Television’s brace of landmark LPs and grips the listener as firmly today as it did in 1977. And even in the midst of pop’s most joyfully luddite era, when any sort of self-indulgence was religiously scorned, Tom Verlaine played the guitar solos it was OK to like. Since the beginning of the ‘80s, Verlaine has pursued an enviable solo career which has spawned at least three classic moments (“Tom Verlaine”, “Cover” and “Dreamtime”) and he’s carried the cult of committed listeners along with him. But inevitably, when talk turns to Verlaine the most hushed tones are reserved for “Marquee Moon” and “Adventure”, the Television albums which brought us Richard Lloyd’s Telecaster, Billy Ficca’s neurotic drums, Fred Smith’s bass and our first glimpse of Tom.
Amazingly, over a decade since they split up, Television have reformed. An as yet unnamed LP has been recorded and they’re to premiere this jealously guarded material at the Glastonbury Festival towards the end of this month. Tom is more than happy to talk Television, but he’s understandably keen that in all the excitement we don’t overlook his most recent experiment. This is “Warm And Cool”, a wholly instrumental album and a venture which has been gestating in the Verlaine brain for, ooh…simply ages.
“Well, the thing is, no major label wanted to put it out. I tried to do one in 1983, and Warners didn’t want to do it and neither did Virgin. They all said there was no way to market it; they liked the idea but they couldn’t sell it. And of course they wouldn’t let me do it for another label. So I figured now was the time to do it.
“I did this record in two and a half days. See, I had this idea so long ago, by the time I was ready to go it was, like, get the right couple of guys and go cut it. There was a lot of tape editing. It was recorded in a couple of days, but it was edited together and mistakes were fixed for about a week.”
It was time well spent. “Warm And Cool” eschews the pretension of most instrumental outings, and boasts a smoky sort of intimacy enhanced in no small way by the sensitivity of the other players involved.
“Yeah, maybe” muses Tom. “It does have everything to do with Billy Ficca in a way, because he can walk into a room and you can just say, “Let’s try this”, or, “Let’s try that.” You can roll the tape machine and before you know it you’ve got all kinds of interesting things. He’s actually, in my opinion, much better at that than when he’s heard the song a couple of hundred times. He’s real good at spontaneous little things.”
The LP also has a very cinematic quality. Did Tom ever think of it in terms of a soundtrack? “There’s not really a film in mind, no. But I can see what you’re saying; you could quite easily drop it into, especially, a late 1940s film-“
Or a ‘60s spy movie, perhaps?
“Well, yeah. I’m actually a big fan of those sorts of twangy guitar sounds – the John Barry type sounds.”
Perhaps some of the most surprising aspects of “Warm And Cool” are its hints of the blues. From Television onwards it’s a form which Tom has constantly evaded. In fact, it was this rejection of what had been such an integral part of the rock tradition which, at the very beginning, made Verlaine so revolutionary.
“Well,” says Tom, “I don’t know about that. The blues to me are minor notes, and there’s plenty of stuff I’ve written with minor chord structures. In terms of the traditional blues, you’re probably right. Playing that form doesn’t really do much for me. Listening to it, though… I like all the Chess Blues records very much, but I didn’t really hear them until the early ‘80s. I didn’t hear them when I was growing up or anything. I think most kids learned to play guitar by playing along to bands like Led Zeppelin and everything was based on that, and those were the licks they’d come out with. Like, I played saxophone for three or four years in the early sixties and before that I played piano, so it was a kind of different way of approaching things I guess – for better or for worse!”
So how would Tom say that the saxophone shaped his guitar playing?
“Well, a lot of people ask me that. All I can say is that maybe it leaves more holes. You know, a lot of guitarists, their left hand never stops moving, and maybe if you play sax you get into this idea of leaving holes – breath places if you like. But then you get people like Coltrane who didn’t really leave a lot of space either. “In the early sixties I really hated guitar. I thought it was a totally twee instrument and not fun to play. Then I realised that it was a lot easier to sing and play guitar. It’s very hard to play saxophone and sing at the same moment!”
Although inextricably associated with his trademark “L” series Fender Jazzmaster – an instrument he almost single-handedly rescued from the dustbin of guitar history – Verlaine’s varied projects require a considerable pool of instruments.
“I’m still using the Jazzmaster quite a bit,” says Tom, “and I’ve got a Strat I use quite a bit, and a wide variety of pretty cheesy amps: Danelectro amps which I’ve had for years and always sound good. There’s a Vox amp that a friend lends me for certain things. It’s all tube stuff. What else? The Super Reverb I still use a lot and I’ve ended up using an old Ampeg bass amp because it’s so flat sounding, you know. I actually used a Vox guitar on “Warm And Cool”, one with a lot of built-in effects. There was a built-in fuzz, a built-in treble boost, but I mostly didn’t turn those on. It’s a very problematic guitar; the tuning on it is ridiculously bad but, especially through the bass amp, it had such a bizarre sort of sound.”
Tom’s been on record as being something of a confirmed valve freak. Is this still the case? “Oh sure. When I lived in England all the young engineers though this was a real trashy sound. They wanted SSL board limiters on everything and Sennheiser mikes, and there was a real fight on all the time. I mean, it’s true that tubes don’t have that zippy high end that all the solid state stuff has, but they always sound broader, for want of a better word; there’s a lot of width to them. I tend to stick with them.”
And what of his championing of the unfashionable Jazzmaster? Was it a conscious attempts to set himself apart or was the association purely accidental?
“I think it was financial!” laughs Verlaine. “In the seventies, when guitars were still cheap, nobody wanted a Jazzmaster because they weren’t loud and didn’t stay in tune. In ’73,’74 you could buy a Jazzmaster for $150 easily. So that’s why I started playing it, because we didn’t have a lot of money and they were cheap. And then I really got used to it, plus the vibrato arm on it is very nice. I use really heavy strings on it – like a 14 to a 58 or something similar – and that’s another part of the sound, I think. Live, I still use a Jazzmaster always.”
And it’s almost become the “alternative rock” guitar. Jazzmasters are used by My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields, Dinosaur Jnr’s J Mascis…
“Yeah... and even the guy in Sonic Youth has used one for years. It is strange – I don’t know what it is. Maybe in the late seventies it was the look of the thing. It was so different it became something that people identified with…
“It’s funny actually, because on a lot of the records it’s other guitars. I’ve had this Gretsch laying around for years – a Gretsch Monkees, a cheap guitar they made to go with the TV show in the ‘60s . And that’s something I use quite a bit. The Jazzmaster, though, is always on the records and it’s always the guitar solos, because I’ve got so used to playing that as a solo instrument, but a lot of the other bit parts and chords are often something else. I’ve got a very small-necked but very good-sounding clean guitar which is a solid bodied Framus. It has about eighty thousand knobs on it and I still haven’t figured out what they all do! It still has the old flatwound strings on it and it’s a totally old-fashioned sound.”
Unsurprisingly Verlaine’s songwriting stature has given rise to a catalogue of cover versions. These have ranged from the straight-ahead tributes of The Rain Parade’s “Ain’t That Nothing” and Echo & The Bunnymen’s “Friction”, through Bowie’s redefined “Kingdom Come”, The Commotions’ brilliant live “Glory” and Birdland’s iniquitous “See No Evil”. Tom claims to keep well abreast of such developments…
“…And I don’t mind just as long as they pay me a royalty!” More recently, The Kronos Quartet (the Frisco-based avant-garde string ensemble) had a bash at “Marquee Moon” for Elektra’s “Rubaiyat” compilation.
“Yeah,” reflects Tom. “Now that I thought was pretty interesting. I thought their improvisation wasn’t so great but I thought the actual melodies and rhythms were interesting.”
Does Tom suspect that this reawakened interest in Television may overshadow what he’s achieved on “Warm And Cool”?
“That depends on the journalists,” he says. “A lot of the pop press guys and especially the daily papers are already asking insane questions and having insane ideas. The people who have followed the whole thing throughout the years are much cooler about everything. I don’t intend to stop having a solo career.
“The reformation thing is something we talked about three years ago, and last we started talking seriously about it, but it sorta fell apart again. Then in November we decided, well, we’ll try this out. Like I say, it’s a very experimental thing, at least for a couple of guys in the group. To me it’s not all that different from what I’ve been doing. I’ve been writing songs all the time; some of them will work with this band and some of them won’t. The attitude of the guys in the is, ”Er, okay, let’s see what happens…”
And how exactly is the album progressing?
“Actually, it’s going pretty well; it’s a lot easier than it was ten years ago! But still, I’d have to say that doing solo work is more fun for me in a way. It’s much less time-consuming, for a start.”
In that Verlaine has continued to work, on and off, with Fred Smith and Billy Ficca, you could say that Television never really died. So it’s doubly odd that, until now, he and Richard Lloyd should have steered so clear of each other.
“Um, that’s a complicated question…” Tom coughs uncomfortably. “And I don’t know if I want to go into it, actually. Basically, I found this guy Jimmy Ripp in about 1980, who’s not only a great guy but he would come up with things that I would have never thought of, which would really colours the songs up nice. And now he’s so expensive I can’t use him!”
But we’re not going to let Tom change the subject that easily. One of the things people found so magical about Television was that seemingly uncanny gel between the guitars of Verlaine and Lloyd… “But I wouldn’t say that it gelled at all. People who heard or saw that band said, “Blah blah, oh god, listen to those guitars!” But at least three quarters of that was me sitting in rehearsals going though everything note by note, dropping things out and changing parts. About a third of that stuff was written on piano, where the left hand would be my part and the right hand would be Richard’s part. So there was a hell of a lot of arrangement work in there; it was by no means two guys jumping into a room and having this magical blend. In fact it was the total antithesis of that. And the new Television record isn’t much different. It’s basically the same process: this works, that doesn’t, let’s try this, let’s try that. There are a couple of songs where each guy came up with a part where we hardly had to change anything, but as a rule it’s not that easy.”
In 1977 such sophistication marked Television well apart from their New York Noo Wave contemporaries, their affection for complex guitars somewhat at odds with the rough-and-tumble times. Were they the thinking man’s punk band?
“Well, we were pretty much pre-punk, you know,” explains Tom. “Everyone in the band had been through three chord rock by 1974 and had gotten pretty bored with it. We decided to put out this Little Johnny Jewel thing, which was almost like a rap record with a long solo in it, and that was ’75. And to my mind the whole punk thing was over by 1974, anyway, in terms of sound.
“It’s curious, though, that even in the eighties guitar bands like REM and Simple Minds and – what’s that other band? – ah, U2, there tends to be an almost withholding of the solo guitar thing. It’s hard to make out whether it’s a taste thing on behalf of the bands or whether the guys are afraid to play a solo. I’ve noticed that a lot of the young guitarists of that ilk are afraid they’re gonna make a mistake. It’s ended up creating this other style of band with a good guitar player who doesn’t really do much but what he does is kinda…interesting. But in terms of the solo, it’s out of the window. It’s either metal, where the guy’s distorted to hell and playing a thousand notes a minute, or else it’s minimal chords – little strum things, y’know. “I’ll be curious to see how this new Television stuff is received because there no long solos on it, but there are solos that are…unusual, I hope. I can understand why people don’t want to play solos, though, because there are so many bad solos on records you can think, “Christ, nobody wants to hear a solo…”
So who is doing something interesting with guitars at the moment?
“I haven’t heard a zillion different records this year, but I like what Sonic Youth does with two guitars, and I like…not so much of this Seattle stuff, but other kinds of grungy, funny stuff. I still like The Cramps a lot. I like White Zombie, too; that guy can actually play, and he’s not afraid to wipe out some zany stuff.”
With such a lengthy career at his back, are there any ways in which Tom’s musical approach has changed over the years, matured, improved even?
“Improved?!” Tom creases up; perhaps “improved was a bad word. “No, improved is a funny word, ‘cos I don’t think anything has changed much, other than my gaining the experience to record things so that they sound better…because, if you know anything about recording, you’re always wondering why your guitar sounds like such shit on tape! Gradually, you start to figure things out about mics and amps.
“As far as the playing goes, I find myself using less and less chords, you might say, and more and more melody parts. I sort of don’t like the sound a chord being hit on a guitar much any more; I try to leave that out. Everything sounds much better to me when you’re using simpler lines, weaving around.”
TV’s Glastonbury gig will expose the group to a legion of new listeners and a score of goggle-eyed bands with copies of “Marquee Moon” at the front of their record collection. Is it something that Tom’s looking forward to?
“It’s gonna be very funny! There are no soundchecks for any of that kind of stuff and we don’t even know what amps we’re going to use.
“I played two acoustic shows in a theatre in London in 1990, which was incredible fun and I really miss doing that. ‘Cos you know, personally, I don’t care about a guitar solo; it’s neither here not there to me. I somehow ended up with a reputation as a guitarist, but to me doing an acoustic tour is incredible fun because you can react with people in a much more direct way, and you can develop things in songs and storytelling and stuff that you can’t really do with a band…And if you want to, you can still play a guitar solo!”