Source: The Bob (Spring 1993)

by Pat Grandjean


When I'm an 85-year-old retired writer (or whatever) and one of my descendants asks me for stories about how swell it's been, one of the things I know I'll remember fondly is Tom Verlaine's disarming, self-effacing laugh. (Or maybe it's better described as sort of a "knowing chuckle".) Anyway, I heard it a lot when he and I talked about the much ballyhooed reemergence of Television—that is, Verlaine, Richard Lloyd, Fred Smith and drummer Billy Ficca—and their self-titled reunion album on Capitol. It's a record that establishes, once again, just how different this band has been from anyone else out there—and if it falls short, it's only because it's not as new or as striking as Marquee Moon was in 1977. Now tell the truth—how many albums have you heard in the last 16 years that are as striking as Marquee Moon? It still brings me to my knees, I know that.

In various recent stores on Television, the idea has come across that Verlaine is a "difficult" interview. (Most journalists are peeved when they can't get him to discuss the good old days of NYC punk.) Well, I'll say this—he's not an easy interview. He doesn't care much for "philosophical" questions (when I tried—rather ineptly, I admit—to ask him some, I got teased in a very charming way), nor does he like being grilled on the PAST SIGNIFICANCE OF Television. He's not a "bullshitter", in either the good or bad sense. But he is personable. He went out of his way to call me on a Sunday afternoon not long before he had to hit the road for a series of live dates (we talked prior to the band's end-of-year US tour). He flattered me, whether he meant to or not, by calling The Bob "one of the better music magazines out there." And though he can seem offhand, it's clear that Television—and his many solo projects over the years, including his recent disc for Ryko, Warm and Cool—have been important to him. He says he hopes Television will continue. So do I.

The Bob: How hard was it to make the new record? Was it a painstaking process?

Verlaine: No—easy. I've worked with Fred for, like, 15 years on most of my solo records, and I've known Billy since I was like 16 years old. It took about seven or eight weeks to record, and it was real easy. That was the fun of it.

The Bob: Tell me something about how these songs evolved.

Verlaine: Each song is different. With the song "The Rocket", it was just me and Billy messing around with the tape rolling. It developed into some overdub parts, and then I threw some extra parts on it—some of 'em we used when we mixed it, some of 'em we didn't. The song "Rhyme" was a rehearsal tape I found where we're just playing something for 20 minutes. I took the best bits out of that. Fr'instance; Richard was playing this melody—he played it once and never played it again, but we took that little melody and made it into a part. I just arranged these pieces into a format, or a song.

"Mars" was rehearsed for a couple of days, until we got the parts down. Likewise, "Call Mr Lee" and "1880 or So" were more worked-on a bit. "In World" was, again, a kind of jammy thing that I had a chorus and another bit for, so we did a couple of takes and erased the mistakes and then made up some other parts. "Beauty Trip" was more a beat kind of thing, with a few little doodads on the top; it's an old-fashioned-type song. A lot of these songs were closer to 12 and 15 minutes, and we cut them down. Live, they tend to be three to four minutes longer.

The Bob: So it sounds like you start the songs, and then they're worked on by the group.

Verlaine: Yeah. [Sometimes] we're jamming away—maybe Billy starts playing a weird beat and I have something that works on top of it. Most of the time I have a structure, and in some cases some guitar parts that I can play, but I can't sing and play at the same time. So Richard will play that guitar part and I'll play something simpler to sing to. And then on other songs, I'll have a part and Richard will have a part and they both work together. Sometimes lyrics are done while we're rehearsing—or at least half-done or a chorus is done, or a general idea for the title of the song is done. And then other times they're changed in the studio, because by the time the band is playing, the lyric doesn't seem to quite make it anymore.

The Bob: Of course, one quality common to all your albums is the conversational quality of the guitars—they're like voices as opposed to instruments. Is that something that developed deliberately?

Verlaine: Well, for myself, less and less. I like chords. So maybe on my last three solo records, the chords as chords start to disappear, and what happens is you get little parts—sometimes they're awash behind the vocal, but other times they're in and out of the vocal part—it's like a different kind of accompaniment, for lack of a better word. Often, on the new Television record, there's a back-and-forth thing to the guitars, where one part is playing and the other part comes in, overlapping slightly. It's very different from what I notice other bands doing, especially these days. They tend to have two big chord parts slamming away, and then a lead part—there isn't a lot of one-guitar bands like U2 or R.E.M., with a few overdubs in the studio. So, I think that makes us sound very different right away.

I also think it's a matter of equipment because we don't play all that loud compared to most bands. So you get a whole different tone out of the guitar. Maybe it puts it more toward '50s twang or Chicago blues.

The Bob: That's what I think of, actually—sort of a Duane Eddy thing. Like something David Lynch would use in his movies. Have you ever thought of doing a soundtrack?

Verlaine: Yeah. But I did one for a German film-maker that was very short, about 12 minutes. To tell you the truth, it's so time-consuming—I finally said, "Look, I don't want to time things here. I'm just going to put down an hour of music, and that way you can slot in anything and edit it any way you want." Because when you get into all that "cue" stuff, it's really not fun.

The Bob: Tell me now, who was this for?

Verlaine: This was for a girl who made a little short film in Munich, Germany, who just liked the guitar playing. And actually, when I saw the film I said, "I don't really think this wants guitars, it wants strings." And she said, "Okay". She got string music for it instead. It's better for me if someone just hears something and wants the rights to it.

The Bob: The songs on this album seem pretty lighthearted to me. For instance, "1880 or So".

Verlaine: Actually, that's not one of them. But I can see why you'd say that, because it's very much a tribute to 19th-century poetry. To me, a lighthearted song is "This Tune" or "Rock It". I think of lighthearted as meaning "toward the humorous".

The Bob: I guess I'm thinking of lighthearted as meaning "an absence of gloom". Anyway, there may be sadness in these songs, but they're not oppressively so. But you were saying "1880 or So" was inspired by...

Verlaine: No, I didn't say it was "inspired by", I said the lyrics were somewhat like bad 19th-century poetry. I saw this reprint of a magazine—or daily paper—maybe it was "The Weekly Home Journal" or something. And in this thing, they had readers send in their poems. They were all kind of kitschy. But at the same time, the people who wrote them were obviously really serious and they were very well-intended. There was just something about the simplicity of this stuff.

The Bob: What was behind "Shane, She Wrote This"?

Verlaine: A combination of religious mania and nymphomania. But this is coincidentally what is thought about the song after it's done. I don't sit around and think these things—I sort of write up conversations and imaginary things, then think...

The Bob: "This is what that was about?"

Verlaine: Well, "aboutness" is a nebulous kind of term. I think it only exists in journalism—or maybe in the academic world, where people don't write songs, they write about songs, or they write about poems, and so they conjure up a whole bunch of meanings for it, which isn't necessarily the intent, y'know? The intent is more like a moment's expression. It's not that it's not serious, but...Oh, never mind, it's too complicated.

The Bob: Okay. So these songs are sort of fragments of conversations, or...

Verlaine: In some cases. In some cases they are conversations, like the song "Willie" is a guy commenting on a girl to somebody else, but also, the verses are the girl talking [to] herself. There is a lot of...I wouldn't say playwriting going on in there, but it's very freeing to pretend to be someone else.

The Bob: Is that what you find you do in your lyrics much of the time?

Verlaine: Yeah...maybe half the time.

The Bob: When you say it's very "freeing"—what kind of freedom does it give you?

Verlaine: I suppose whatever a person writes represents some mood or part of themselves, but it's transient, right? For instance, with this "Beauty Trip" song, I remember thinking about one of those giant old, late '40s cars, from a black and white movie. And some guy is living in this car somewhere on the outskirts of Las Vegas, which was hardly even built yet then. And he's just gotten back from some war—maybe the Korean War, maybe it's more '50s, actually—and he's crazy about some 16-year-old girl. It's totally ludicrous, and kinda mad—there's a certain madness to the whole thing—but there's also a certain humor. So this somehow generates a guy's monologue which becomes the lyric of the song.

The Bob: What about "Mars"? That's a strange one.

Verlaine: To me, there's a weird atmosphere of a bad horror film there, coupled again with something kind of insane, but at the same time very transient, nothing life-threatening or anything. Again I think '50s, because the guitar sounds are deliberately really cheesy. I don't know—it's just something that passed by and we ended up recording it. I think Fred had a super-weirdo bass line, and I remember playing this guitar line that I somehow thought was all wrong, but it just sounded really good. And then Richard started playing that line, and I started playing a part against that line, so you end up with these three things happening at once that somehow fit together.

The Bob: Do you enjoy songwriting? I ask this because I know that any writer goes through times when they like the process and times when they don't.

Verlaine: Yeah, sure, of course. I don't do it unless I feel like it. But I generally work all the time—I'm banging away at an acoustic guitar or something. Or sometimes I have a little story and I think, "Aah, I can work this into a song."

The Bob: Are you prolific in the sense that a lot of the ideas you bang out are ones you eventually use?

Verlaine: Ummm...I don't know. I guess one has a standard, although I couldn't tell you what it is. I guess that limits the amount of things you actually finish.

The Bob: Are there writers that you admire? Poets or novelists whose ideas influence you?

Verlaine: Yeah, I'd say there's probably about a couple of hundred people I admire—but that has nothing to do with what a person does themselves. That's why I never mention these things. You can read a detective novel you really like, but it had no bearing on what you do yourself, you just think, "God, how this guy wove this together!" Or you get into the energy of it. Or you see a poem which makes a great statement about sentiment, but it's not sentimental.

The Bob: But you definitely don't incorporate any of this? None of it even filters?

Verlaine: Well, I don't know if it does or it doesn't. But it's more admiring how somebody did something than exactly what they did. What you see is the guy's energy buzzing off and you go, "That was great." But the thing is, you don't analyze the technique. You just sit and wonder how they did this. I don't know how they did it, because I've never analyzed a poem or a piece of music that way. I mean, I've looked at sheet music for some things and thought, "Gee, that's really unusual." Or, "That's something I never would have tried." You see these people, and while I'm sure they don't pull it out of the blue, it looks that way. You just don't know.

The Bob: Can we talk about some of the people whose technique you admire?

Verlaine: That's what I'm trying to say—I don't know if it's technique. You know what I mean? There's an old TV show called "Mr Lucky". Henry Mancini wrote this melody, and I heard this somewhere; and I found a record with it and listened to it and thought, "Christ, what a melody. Nobody writes a melody like this anymore." A lot of people would say that's good 'cause they can't stand that kind of thing. But I picked up a piece of sheet music and looked at it, and it was just making all these little moves that I never would have dreamed up in a million years. That kind of melody just doesn't come to me, so somehow I have an admiration for it. But Mancini, who wrote that melody—maybe it just came to him, or maybe he just noodled on a piano until he found something. Who knows? I don't know how he found it.

I read something about Ravel, where he used to sit and do exercises, and the most blank-minded little tweedle things would become really beautiful symphonic movements. So I don't think you can disregard any way of doing anything, because there's life in everything.

The Bob: I read that you said you didn't think you had written any melodies as good as most 1950s TV show themes.

Verlaine: Yeah! I'd say that's true. These things are extremely strange and memorable somehow. They're all so rhythmically weird. Maybe because none of these people were writing to rock beats, they were strictly concentrating on melody—they weren't working against a boom-chick, 2/4 beat. Even in the late '50s, rock music was just thought of as total trash by anyone who was schooled.

The Bob: What do you think it is about the four of you in Television that clicks?

Verlaine: I think amongst the guitars, it's a liking for the same kind of tones, so you don't have one guy playing twang and the other guy playing with a fuzz tone. So, right away, the two guitars have a kind of "band" sound. It's not that far off from '60s bands, really, like Yardbirds or early Rolling Stones, where sometimes the two guitars sound like one big guitar weaving back and forth. With Fred it's a simplicity thing—he doesn't play very complicated parts, which help the guitars poke out more. And with Billy, it's like he has an incredibly broad background in drums. He and I used to play sort of quasi free-jazz stuff in the '60s. So he has this really wide background of different styles.

The Bob: Y'know, every time I read about you, I see "Oh, that Tom Verlaine, he's so difficult." Do you think you're difficult?

Verlaine: Well, the people who say that are the people who don't know me, number one, and anyone who talks to the musicians I work with never gets that opinion. A couple of managers may have said that, and likewise, I'm no longer with those managers because I found them, like, impossible—the kind of things they wanted you to do just don't work.

I think it's journalists, actually, who promote that. Sometimes you get a journalist who—no offense to the cause of journalism—is kind of an idiot, and they sit there and they go, "So what's new?" I mean, there is an interview format, and it is based on questions and the idea of having a conversation that becomes a printed piece. And when guys sit there and go, "What's new?" it's really irritating. So then, maybe they say I'm difficult, I don't know.

The Bob: You produce yourselves, too. And the message that has gotten across is that it's because you don't like working with producers.

Verlaine: I wouldn't say that, it's just that...if you don't really know what you want, your songs are kind of a mess and you don't know about arranging, and you don't know about basic drum tunings and all that kind of stuff, it's really smart to have a guy in there who's watching over the whole thing. But if you have your stuff down and you know what you want and you don't really need that guy, it can become real debilitating, 'cause then you wind up fighting with someone who wants you to "do this" and "do that" all the time.

There was a story in Musician last month where there was a quote about producers being "all full of shit". But they only printed half of the quote—the second half was that there are really great producers who are a huge benefit to a band, or appear to have been. Fr'instance, I don't like Queen, but there's no question that this guy Roy Thomas Baker really did a number for them that they wouldn't have achieved themselves. Likewise, Jimmy Miller with the Rolling Stones, George Martin with the Beatles—there's a whole history of guys who worked together on numbers of records that seemed to have been better records for that. If I found a guy who was like that for us, I'd be overjoyed. I've never met one.

The Bob: Have you heard something on any other band's records lately where you thought, "Maybe if I approached this guy, it would work out"?

Verlaine: Well, I hear records that I think are good for what the band's doing, but they're not necessarily good for what we're doing. First of all, our guitar sound is so different from all these guitar sounds today—I've worked with guys and they're totally scratching their heads thinking, "How am I gonna mix this?" Because it's not the huge, fat, distorted guitar, which is a really easy thing to mix once you have it on tape. This is a totally different approach. The guy who does The Cure does a good job with their records, I think. And I think Scott Litt does a good job with R.E.M.'s records.

The Bob: Do you think of yourself as a quote-unquote "musician"?

Verlaine: Probably not in the way that a lot of guys do.

The Bob: In what way would you say you are?

Verlaine: I drink a lot of coffee. Smoke a lot of cigarettes. That's my affinity. No, I think it's what I am, given that I spend most of my time writing songs or giving "concerts", for lack of a better term.

The Bob: What does songwriting do for you? Does it give you something back?

Verlaine: Got me beat. These "life philosophy" questions are tricky.

The Bob: A lot has been said about Television's early days, and the band's influence. What do you think about all that?

Verlaine: I don't think about it. I want all these bands to pay us up, y'know? We want a cut of all their royalties. I just think it's fair.

The Bob: Do you think the band was influential? Do you hear any bands now carrying on your ideas?

Verlaine: I don't know. I don't really listen to too many new records now, I just hear snippets here and there.

The Bob: Who do you think has had the most enduring impact on you?

Verlaine: Uh...Mickey Mouse. For sure. And that dog—what was his name?—Pluto. And also, the little guy called "The Jeep" in Popeye cartoons. He's difficult to describe if you've never seen him—he's this little thing that appears and disappears and helps people out. He's really a unique idea.

The Bob: That's funny, 'cause I just came across a record in our attic from 1953 or '54—"Popeye the Sailor Man".

Verlaine: Oh, yeah, one of the kids' songs. There's a very strong philosophy in the "Popeye" theme, "I yam what I yam". That's very good.

You know, Robert Louis Stevenson used to have these guys he called the "Brownies", which were these little guys who used to come to him when he was half asleep and help him finish stories. He wrote an essay about this. That was something that I found pretty interesting.

The Bob: Aha. Do you have anything like that?

Verlaine: Oh—maybe.

The Bob: Didn't Edgar Allen Poe have something like that, too? Something beyond a lot of controlled substances, I mean?

Verlaine: Poe developed this theory of the universe that's pretty wild. One of the later things he wrote was this 60-page essay on the universe that's like totally unique. It's almost unreadable, because of the style of that time. But it's pretty cool. I like it when people develop their own wild theory and are able, actually, to write about it.

The Bob: So tell me—what kind of audiences have you been attracting this time around?

Verlaine: So far, most of them are under 19 years old. I think that's the audience for electric guitar music, period. So it's really nice for us.

The Bob: Are they demonstrative? Somehow, I hold this stereotype of your audience as being a more cerebral crowd.

Verlaine: I don't think there is such an audience anymore. Unless they go see Suzanne Vega or something.

The Bob: How do your songs change live?

Verlaine: They just get longer, because we like to play around. It has that aspect of we don't know when it's gonna end, and we don't know what it's gonna be. Maybe one time out of four it really works, and the other times it may really be a disaster. Still, it's more fun than just being a band that presents 20 songs that are the same every night. With us, half the songs are like the record, the other half have a lot of room to extend things.

It's strange—I heard a Hendrix live record yesterday, and he's playing the exact same solos on it that are on the record. I thought, "Gee, this guy actually worked on solos or composed them! Or learned them back from the records as a way to present them." I don't know, I'm not so good at that. Richard's very good at that, actually—playing the solo, as you might say.

The Bob: I guess I need to dig out my copy of The Blow Up and listen to it again!

Verlaine: It's a really crap recording, but I really like that thing myself. It just really captures what was going on at the time. There's about a dozen Television bootlegs out there, but that's by far the best. I wouldn't even be bothered with the others.

The Bob: Would you consider putting out an official live recording?

Verlaine: I've always wanted to do one, but record companies aren't very big on them. It used to be very cheap to send a truck out for ten days to record ten concerts and make a live album. But production sort of took over ten years ago, and it hasn't quite recovered from that.

The Bob: What's next on the agenda for Television, after the US tour?

Verlaine: I don't know. I really have no idea. What'll happen next year is, like, a big mystery to me. How long you tour depends on how long the record actually sells, or if it sells, and since most of the world never saw this band live, we really want to go to these places we've never been. The unfortunate thing is I've been to them as a solo act, so it's not new to me. But now I go to Spain or Italy, and I know most of the good restaurants in these places. So at least I get us a good meal.