Best known for his solo albums—Cosmic Furnace (Atlantic; 1973) and Air Pocket (Bearsville; 1980)—and his work with Todd Rundgren in Utopia, synthesist Roger Powell has just completed his long-awaited third solo project, Fossil Poets (Inner Knot; 2006). It is due to be released October 24, 2006.
Roger Powell with his Synthesis Technology MOTM analog synthesizer.
As a sideman, Powell earned a gold record for his work with Meat Loaf on Bat Out of Hell (CIR; 1977), and played keys behind David Bowie during the tour that resulted in the exceptional live document Stage (EMI; 1978), as well as in the studio for Lodger (RCA; 1979).
Technically inquisitive, Powell pushed the envelope with innovative keyboard instruments, such as the Powell Probe, in the '70s and '80s. This curiosity also included writing software for the nascent personal computer, which eventually led to his current position at Apple Computer as Senior Engineer, Technical Lead: Apple Professional Applications.
During our interview, Powell informed me that, at this point in his life, he has been a software engineer longer than he was a professional keyboard player.
Why did it take so long to get the third solo record out?
You mean 26 years is a long time? [Laughs.]
It seems like it was simmering for awhile.
When Utopia disbanded in '85, I was taking a break from music. I got sidetracked into computer programming and wrote one of the earliest MIDI sequencer programs, called Texture, for MS-DOS. I decided at that point that, since the band wasn't working anymore, I'd spend some time being a software engineer. So I took a job at WaveFrame in Colorado in 1987 and moved out there. I was firmly in the software development camp at that point and enjoying a regular job and a paycheck. [Laughs.]
Around that time I was working on a musical project that was supposed to come out on the Passport label, tentatively titled Architecture. Those were more like demo recordings. I wasn't really happy with them being a final master. But it didn't matter anyway because the label went out of business. There was one cut that was released, called "Connections to the Outside World" on Larry Fast's label Audion (his side-label on Passport). He put out a sampler LP, and that song ended up on there.
That was actually a pretty interesting production. It was recorded live, using the sequencer Texture, which was playing back all the parts (drums and everything). I recorded live, solo, over the top of it. And that was done direct to 2-track to a Sony PCM digital recorder that used VHS tapes. So that was as far as anything got from Architecture.
Fossil Poets (InnerKnot)
I went to work for Silicon Graphics in 1991 and was real busy with that. Six years later, I went to Macromedia, which had a program called KeyGrip. Six months later, Apple bought that whole division and developed Final Cut Pro.
Where did you get your programming chops?
I'm self-taught. When the first Intel personal-computer chips came out, you could buy computer kits, with a chassis and a power supply, busses, and cards to make a little computer. I built a couple of those S-100 systems. Once I built them, I had to figure out how they worked.
They had switches on the front for toggling in binary code. I just bootstrapped myself up with that. Then I started writing assembly language programs, toggling in the assembly language bits for the Intel chip-set. Then I got a cassette machine with an interface, and I could then load a mnemonic assembler and a monitor. I just went up from there as better computers came out.
I was affiliated with Microsoft for awhile: I was working on a music program for the ill-fated PC Junior. The good thing about the Microsoft connection is that they shipped me an IBM PC when they came out, and a C compiler. So I started learning C.
The first version of Texture was written for the Apple II in 6502 assembly language. It was called Texture because you entered the notes from a text-editor. And I figured out this way that you could flip back and forth from any text editor and my program. Then you would hit this button and it would compile that and play it back through a 7-channel D/A converter that was being clocked by a test oscillator. The D/A was essentially the MIDI, along with a parallel port that provided 5V up and down to flip the bit, so that was the gate.
What instigated you to begin this new project?
I decided in early 2000 that it was time to get back into music. I started to experiment with some of the analog modeling synths that came out—the Nord Lead, and so forth. Over a period of a couple of years, I had created all these little DNA fragments of music, but nothing was completed. I figured it was time to finish something, and in order to do that, I needed some help. That's what a producer does, so I looked up an old friend of mine, Gary Tanin, who lives in Milwaukee. I brought him a bunch of CDs of all these short pieces, and we decided that we had enough raw material there to develop a style for another solo recording.
We worked on that for about two years. The Fossil Poets is a collaborative effort between myself and Gary, and a really fabulous guitarist, Greg Koch. Basically we operated in serial fashion, if you will, by sending CDs of material back and forth. Gary would make longer arrangements out of the fragments I sent, and I would OK those and add other parts.
So it was sort of a slow process of getting back involved in it. But the key was hooking up with Gary so that I didn't have to do every single thing on the recording. And that just took awhile.
I wanted to take a fresh approach and work with someone that was not related to my past, if you will. He's very, very good at helping me with the arrangements.
Were there times when you would ask Gary to back up a bit and restructure something? Or did he always do the right thing with the material?
Some of the pieces I handed him were more formed than others. A lot of the work was getting things rearranged and parts put together. And, yeah, we had lively discussions about what worked and what didn't seem to work. But in general, I felt that he had a real good knack for understanding what I was trying to do. Although, I didn't even know what I was trying to do in some cases. [Laughs.] Things just evolved.
He produced Greg, the guitar player. I wasn't there for those sessions, but he would send me the results and I would comment on them. At first there was a lot of guitar. And I mentioned that I'd need to edit some of that so there's some space for me. But over time we developed a work flow that seemed to serve us pretty well.
To what degree did you integrate the analog synths and digital sequencing into one system? In particular you used the Synthesis Technologies MOTM analog system.
The MOTM is used a lot for textures on the album. And it was also used in some places for sequencing. For those parts, I used a Korg Electribe EA-1 and a Kenton MIDI-CV converter to drive the MOTM. I would just use the MIDI Out from the Electribe—it was like having an analog step sequencer.
I used other hardware as well. I have a Moog Voyager, of course, and a Nord Lead and Nord Modular. The Nord Electro is featured on the album as well, wherever you hear an electric piano or a Clavinet, and for most of the organ sounds.
The actual hardware instruments I have setup today are the MOTM, the Voyager, and the Triton Extreme. I don't have a lot of room for other stuff in my studio.
And I used just about every program known to man on this album. A lot of the original material was developed in Sony Acid, because that provided a quick way to put rhythmic ideas together. And then I moved into Cubase SX. I used a bunch of soft-synth plug-ins. I'm fond of the LinPlug instruments Albino and CronoX.
In addition, there are some acoustic cameo appearances on the album, because everything was so electronic everywhere else. I played flugelhorn, Native American flute, accordion, and mandolin. Each instrument is only used once. There are two acoustic piano pieces, as well.
We didn't want this album to go in just one direction. We came up with this phrase: It's retro-futuristic. So it's got a lot of analog-like sounds and some acoustic stuff. But it's also got the current groove oriented styles.
Herman Serrano created the album artwork.
You overdubbed those instruments in your home studio?
What mic did you use?
I used a Rode NTK tube mic. I don't have a lot of mics and don't do enough acoustic recording to invest in a bunch of expensive mics. I used that for all the acoustic stuff. It has a nice, warm sound.
Are you using the preamps in your interface?
Yeah, nothing fancy. The flugelhorn was recorded into a Pro Tools session with the Digi 002R. We would use plug-ins for whatever effects that we needed. Mostly, just plug it in and go. I have an adage: if it sounds good, it's a good sound. It's more about the playing.
Tell me about the solo piano tracks.
Sometimes I just sit down and start improvising. I can hardly remember an actual piece from beginning to end, but I can get around on the piano. Gary suggested I do some piano work. I really didn't want to get into recording a fancy piano, because all I have is this upright and I don't have a proper studio, and I didn't want to turn this into a life-long recording project. So he said "Just put up a mic and improvise and we'll find some useful parts in it." So that's what I did: I recorded it using the JamMan. After dinner and after a beer, I set up my mic and thought, "What am I going to record it on? Well this thing is portable [laughs] and it creates WAV files."
It's not the best recording. But it is in keeping with our philosophy that it shouldn't be technically perfect.
You recorded it at home?
Yes. I have a top of the line Schimmel upright I purchased in 1994. It's a little bit seasoned and it hasn't been tuned in three years! I put the mic above my head and opened the top, and the recording ended up having a nice ambience. I recorded one continuous piece. Gary processed it, stereofied it, and chose two little segments out of one larger, inebriated walk-up to the piano.
The acoustic piano pieces fill out the record nicely.
They do! It's funny, because we let people hear the recording, and I thought people were going to hate this piece or that piece. They're just not going to like it: they're all going to like this other piece. It turns out that everybody liked something different, and yet they enjoyed the other stuff. A couple of people said "Man, I'm really glad you put those piano pieces on there."
Do you find yourself being inspired by synth patches, or do you have a mental concept of a piece before hand, and then figure out the sounds to match it?
I'd say it's the former. The most fun is to just sit down at a synth and noodle around until you find a texture or you can overlay a few sounds together. Or work with a beat box.
I was so excited to have the modular finished. I put all those kits together and everything worked, so I figured I should spend some time playing them. It was really inspiring to go back to the old way of doing things without presets, by plugging patch cords and twiddling knobs.
The system has a fairly well rounded set of modules, with some weird filters and a Wave Warper. I just found it fun and inspirational to make sounds on it that would lead into a certain mood or a style. Then I'd start adding other parts to it.
This album is fairly different than both of my earlier albums. On the other albums, a bunch of the songs were actually composed on the piano and then realized using synthesizers. But on this recording it's very much a stream of consciousness type of composing, where we let things develop organically.
Do you amplify your hardware instruments before recording them or use a special preamp?
I just plug them in directly and use plug-ins once they've been recorded. Sometimes I'll use some external processors. I have a Vox ToneWorks device: it's got a little tube in it. I've used that to just mangle sounds. If I'm looking for a Rhodes-on-Mars sound or something, I'll plug it through that and mess around with it until it sounds like something else. I'm starting to do more with soft synths, because they're responsive enough and sound good enough.
I still have stand-alone hard disk recorders, too. And I really like using them because you don't have to be in the room where you have a mondo-DAW setup. I like portability. Sometimes, I just like to sit on the couch downstairs and work. So I've got a little Fostex thing that records onto Compact Flash, and I've got one of the Tascam 8-track hard disk recorders. I love that thing. And six months ago—and I love this—I bought a Tascam 4-track cassette recorder. That is actually the most fun.
Why is that?
There are no screens. There are no menus. It's totally predictable and straightforward. You can record four channels at once, and it actually doesn't sound half-bad.
I'm lucky: for the kind of music that I do, I don't need 192 kHz or to be able to record in an anechoic chamber with $4,000 microphones. I like stuff that is kind of smudged a little bit. This thing was a little over $200—that's the cost of a stomp box.
Where does the name Fossil Poets come from?
Once this project took shape, we thought it sounded kind of like a band. But Gary said it should still be a Roger Powell album, because I have the recognition and so forth. But we didn't know what to call the album?
For weeks we went back and forth. We went to Band Name Generator [laughs] and came up with all these stupid names. We were sending 30 suggestions back and forth every day, and every one was either too serious, too silly, or had already been taken.
At one point I started looking through poetry books for inspiration, and Gary sent me a list that included "fossil poets." I said "That's it!" Because we're all aging: none of us are kids.
The ironic thing was that we came up with the name and said "let's live with that for a couple of weeks." It sounds like a band, but it could also be an album title. Months later, I found this Ralph Waldo Emerson essay that has a paragraph that starts off "language is fossil poetry." What he meant was that all of the original words that people came up with for things were just poetry then. And language is, therefore, fossil poetry.
So now when people ask how we came up with the name, I say "apparently you don't read Ralph Waldo Emerson." [Laughs.]
We're probably going to put out a limited run of the project on vinyl. We can't fit the whole CD on there, but we've picked out what we thought were the highlights. It's a bigger format for the artwork.
Did you see Herman Serrano's artwork before the recording was done?
What turns you on about it?
It's very mysterious, with lots of detail. I keep finding new things every place I look—little hidden things. He came up with that boy on the fossil beach after listening to the music, with the little glyphs. And he created this logo with a sort of yin/yang fossil thing.
Apparently he's well known for doing art for games. It just gave me chills when I looked at his portfolio and saw all this stuff. I thought "This guy is good!"
Three or four days after we began corresponding, he sent me a 2-minute slide show to the musical excerpts I'd put online. As soon as that boy on the fossil beach came in, we were like "Whoa!" I was inspired with what I saw. Herman immediately came up with ideas, and they were all good. That, to me, was the missing element.
Roger and the Powell Probe (ca. 1977)
It sounds like Greg Koch enjoyed himself, based on the guitar parts. There is some amazing playing on there.
I finally met him at Guitar Showcase, where he did a Fender clinic. He's a riot: a certified comedian as well as a Tele-master. He's playing stuff you can't believe he's playing. He says "On my new record, I do things to the Tele that you wouldn't do to a farm animal." [Laughs.]
Are you going take this on the road?
I don't see that happening. First of all, I still have a reasonably lucrative day job. And it wasn't composed as a band. I suppose we could recreate this stuff, but that would be a lot of work.
Are you going to do a CD release party?
We might do a CD release party. But I don't know what I'd play. The pieces were assembled. Looking back on it, they sound like maybe a band put them together and recorded them, and then added some parts.
We basically kept the guitar sound pretty straight. He used a fuzz box or whatever, but we deliberately decided that the guitar was going be this bluesy, grounding element. So you have this electronic groove-oriented stuff, with Albert Collins playing on it. We kind of used that as a theme.
I'm sure Greg could play his parts live. But I would have to go in and figure out how to recreate some combination of synths and loops and whatever. And I have not been playing live that way. That would be a major effort.
It's not really my goal at this stage in my life to go on the road. It's not like we're revved up, and practiced, and ready to go. Like I said, I'd never even met the guitar player until he finished his parts.
That means you'll still be friends on the road when you go...
Well, for at least the first week. [Laughs.] It would probably be fun. But I've got my hands full already.
What I really want to do is start working on the next one, because we learned a lot by doing this, as I was mentioning about the work flow. We eventually figured out that it was pointless to send Pro Tools sessions back and forth. As soon as I found out that Gary could handle the editing and mixing, I said "That's perfect." All I have to do is sit there and listen.
Did he send you MP3s to see if it was the right direction?
He would just burn a CD and say "What do you think of this?" And if I needed to add a part, I would just pull that into Pro Tools and add the part. And then send him that track back.
I like the call and response of the guitars on "Crème Fraiche," but I'm surprised it wasn't a call and response between guitar and synthesizer.
We decided to feature Greg on that one. There are a couple places where I pulled the guitar back and did some answering things. I originally thought I wanted to do more of that, a la Utopia, by doubling the guitar part and adding a harmony—that sort of thing. We just did things a little differently.
You have to remember this is all being done serially. On most songs, he probably played all the way through the thing, for coverage. Then I'd say "I like these phrases, and I should play something." So we did that. But on that song, this is his tribute to Eric Clapton [Laughs.]
And then at the end, there is a surprise: a wild organ solo. So we saved up the keyboard, and I bloodied my hands on that. The song has a couple of holes in it, and the MOTM is covering where the beat stops. The spooky background stuff—where it kind of floats for a second—that's all MOTM. It does another one of those stops towards the end, and I wanted a swell up to the organ solo and do a Steve Winwood type of thing.
Did you play a real organ?
No, I think that was a Roland D50. But we doctored it. It took us an hour to set up the sound. I did that in Wisconsin. Once we had the structure of the songs, and a lot of the guitar parts done, then it was my turn to have fun. That's where we figured out some parts and where they should be.
Originally, I flew out there to just deliver stuff and talk about fragments and what might happen. I left it with him for two or three months, and he started piecing some arrangements together for songs that weren't complete. And then he worked with the guitar player for a couple of months. We edited those to the point where we had the structure of the songs, and we knew where the guitar parts were going to be and where we wanted Roger Powell licks.
Then he flew out to my studio for overdubs over a long weekend. After working on it some more, I flew back out there for another weekend of overdubs and final editing. We wanted to get to the point where we could start doing the mastering. And by the end, I was usually taking things out.
I saw this great quote the other day: You know you've achieved perfection not when you can't think of anything more to put into a piece, but when you can't think of anything else to take out.
I really wanted this project to be a minimal thing, and have the ambience carry it. We put solos in, but I didn't want it to be this typical verse/chorus "Okay, here comes the guitar solo! Here comes the synthesizer solo!" So we really tried to mix it up a little bit and have it flow more than have it be composed songs.
How did you know when each piece was done?
We had differences of opinion in some places, but we worked it out. It's always nice to have somebody who has a different perspective on things, so you can get into these discussions. It helps you define what the overall thing is supposed to be.
I sat there with Gary when I went out there the last time, and we started listening critically to every song. If I heard something that I wanted to change, I would just say stop, and we would do something to change it. I drove him nuts here and there, but he was the Pro Tools master and was able to do things that I would suggest and do them much more quickly than I could do them.
I was mostly interested at that point in making sure we didn't over do certain things because then the parts would stick out better. It was like, "We don't need that lick repeated that many times: take out the second and the fourth and maybe I'll put something in if you think there's a hole there."
I kept pushing for little sound design elements. I wanted little things here and there. I've got a short attention span, and it would start sounding boring to me real soon, and I'd say "Something else has to happen here. We have to take something out and put something else in." Every now and then you'll hear some out-of-left-field drum fill, and it'll only appear once or twice in the piece, but it just breaks it up. We also did that in judicious places with some of the guitar licks. "He's played this one the same way three times, so let's mangle that one." We didn't do much of that because I wanted to keep his pure, straight-ahead guitar sound and let everything else swirl around it.
Will you have vocals on the next project?
It's possible: I'm not ruling that out. I am my worst critic as a vocalist. I find singing very hard to do. But people have told that sometimes I can pull it off, so I might consider it. I know that that adds a lot of human appeal to a record.
Actually, I don't mind singing so much. I just find writing the lyrics to be very painful. The other philosophy I've had most of my musical career is that once you put lyrics on something it becomes very concrete. Unless you do stream-of-consciousness lyrics. It pins things down, and doesn't allow as much interpretation of the music.
It takes it into a new audience. There's an audience that can't really listen to music unless it has words on it, and you seemed to have tapped into it with your second record, Air Pocket.
Only the first side of that record had vocals on it. The second side was all instrumental again. I guess what I was saying was that I'm thinking about a more structured approach, but simple structures. Keep the retro thing, but maybe use, for example, simple blues structures and do interesting things with them.
I don't want to just repeat what I did on this one. I don't see how I actually could, because it just became what it is. It grew out of all these fragments.
You won't start with, say, a collaboration with the three of you in the same space?
We might. That was another goal—to try to be in the same room for some of this. The whole thing was just an experiment to begin with. I had all this loosely strung-together stuff, and Gary took it to the next level. The whole thing just kind of grew organically. It was certainly a challenge. But we've got some experience now, and now I know what Greg can do, and what Gary is good at.
It sounds like you have the inspiration to do it.
This gave me the confidence back. Because, when you're out of the business for so long—you're kind of rusty and everybody has forgotten about you—you lose a little of your self confidence. It's like "Wow. Has it really been that long? Can I still do this? Do I still have something to say?" I have something to say, but it just comes out in some other language-fossil poetry.
Have you begun working on the next project?
I'm in the fragment stage again. I think because we've been through this process, we'll probably have a little bit more direction for the next recording. Maybe it won't take another 26 years.