Interview with Bill Meyer
Jean, you talked at some point in one of the interviews about contributing to Dave’s book by keeping Mecca Normal demands out of his datebook (you didn’t quite put it that way). In what ways did / does Dave contribute to your writing?
Where do I start? I could not ask for a more supportive creative partner than David. For god’s sake – he started a small press to publish my first novel in 1993. He promoted that book relentlessly, getting it into various distribution systems and libraries. He edits all my writing, tells me both helpful and flattering things about my work, and generally enthralls about the way I write and what I have to say. He’s been a big fan of the novel I recently secured a literary agent for – which makes it exciting for both of us to see that manuscript in the hands of big publishing houses. David has regarded me as a writer longer than I myself have. He was my poetry manager back in the 80s and into the 90s. The way he plays guitar is calculated to take my words to more compelling places than I could alone – not by underscoring emotions in sentimental ways, but in his own unique interpretations as an artist; one I greatly respect. It does not get any better than this and I am extremely grateful. As the years go on, I feel increasingly amazed by the good fortune at finding this partnership – one that began 30 years ago as soon as we met and began working together. I am, by nature, very impatient. I work best as a collaborator, I think, and I tend to leave things until the last minute. When I work alone, as I do when I’m writing novels, I am always thinking about my readers and the first reader is usually David. I don’t like to waste his time or disappoint him – or jeopardize any success we might be able to wring out of a situation – so I always do my best work. However hokey that sounds, it is totally real and motivating. David and I treat each other very respectfully and that’s saying something after 30 years embroiled in what could be regarded as a less than successful music project. I mean, we do all the work that more successful bands and artists simply don’t do. Booking tours, driving, updating websites, researching where to send promo – creating publicity material and sending it out etc. We treat all these tasks as part of our project. There’s great value in working on these things together. It strengthens the friendship that is, I think visible when we’re on stage together and it increases the quality of the songs we write and perform together. Really, someone should make a film about Mecca Normal – this perfect little thing bobbing along for the better part of two lifetimes. Most of the times that I’ve been foolish enough to try and replicate the excellence of Mecca Normal have been failures to some degree – from minor to massive. Also, as I gush on like this, I’d like to add that David’s wife has played a significant role in our longevity and quality of existence by being extremely supportive on many fronts. She’s a musician and a fan of Mecca Normal, but… oh my god… if she was some other sort of person, it could have been a lot harder to keep going. Additionally, Kramer and Rat taking an interest in us, and then finding that Brett at M’lady’s Records was really keen to release the resulting album, have all been extremely important in finding our way back to playing shows and writing even more new songs. Over the past fifteen years, we’ve spent a lot of time honing a presentation called “How Art & Music Can Change the World” that features a Mecca Normal performance – and that’s been really great to take on tours of libraries, classrooms and book stores, especially to bolster our various book and art projects. Doing a tour of mostly rock shows is quite a bit less difficult than giving a lecture at a university in the daytime and then driving to another city to set up an art exhibition for one night and then play a rock show – that’s how we ended up doing 25 shows in 25 days on our last big tour 5 years ago. Our fall tour is looking much more manageable with maybe 12 rock shows in 14 days. We’ll do California on a separate tour early in 2015.
The thing with David and I is that we’re both keen to put whatever work is being featured to the fore. Somehow, it seems there’s always a connection between our projects. When David was working on his book about Hitler, a suspected narcissist, I was writing a novel about a woman who cured narcissism with abstract expressionism. We didn’t actually realize the commonalities until I started to create a touring stage adaption for David’s book. Suddenly we were dealing with themes that related to both our books.
I’m curious what the two of you think about Kramer’s assertion that “what you two do is as much symphonic (the songs being more akin to “movements” in a symphony than “songs”… small parts of a whole) as it is a collection of individual statements/chapters”? Had you seen it this way before he said it? If so, how long has it been that way?
Considering that the lyrics for most of the songs are directly out of two of my novels, I see the songs as both stand-alone stories and as components of novels. Perhaps that’s what gave Kramer the sense of them being parts in a longer piece.
By the time Kramer made the comment about the album being symphonic, he’d read my first novel and really liked it. There were quite a few lyrics in that novel as well. Songs from our third album “Dovetail” appear throughout the story.
As I’ve spent more time with the record, I find myself wondering, how did you feel when your record came back with mellotron and organ on it? If that something you were hoping Kramer would do, what was the reaction to the actuality of it?
We wanted Kramer to add what he thought was needed. He plays bass on every track, but that was something that happened after we recorded in the studio. We knew we were not going to be part of the final mixing process. He did that back at Noise Miami after we’d returned to Vancouver. Dave in particular wanted Kramer to add some oomph to the bottom end, to fill out the bass. I communicated how we didn’t want the bass to be heard as a melody or individual notes. So this was articulated while we recorded and re-iterated in email, which, when you think about it; it’s a good thing not to be doing all this communicating while you’re mixing, because talking while mixing can be counterproductive. It takes up time and energy. Leaving Kramer alone to work seemed advantageous. We asked him to do what he wanted. The plan was for him to add to the tracks when we weren’t there. So we had to let go of the outcome to some degree because that’s what we signed up for; it was our decision to do that.
There was one funny story from the rather tricky time of asking him, in email, to make some changes after he sent us his final mixes. We wanted most of the vocals a bit louder and there were a couple of weird sounds we wanted him to re-visit. I wrote that email, keeping it very short and efficient, and sent it to him at the top of much longer set of directions from before he mixed – the original notes we compiled after we’d listened to the rough mixes at home. The much longer email outlined every song and included a lot of poetic language to describe our thoughts. So I sent the short email and waited for his response, hoping I hadn’t ruffled any feathers, because obviously bringing up the vocals to a level we want means going back into almost every track after he’s decided where he wants the levels. That’s asking an artist to do something other than what he wanted.
I recall waking up from a nap and seeing a reply from Kramer. I opened the email and he’s on a total tirade, saying that my requests were outlandish and ridiculous and who did I think I was or who did I think he was. I was floored. He was totally going bonkers. Then, two second later, as I’m standing there totally stunned, there’s a second email with the subject line: STOP!! or something like that. I open it and he’s imploring me not to read the email he’d sent and to CALL IMMEDIATELY. So I’m standing there, just waking up from my nap, and I dial his number to get into this thing with him. Turns out he’d basically skimmed the email and seen the long list of original instructions. I think he was waking up from a nap too. It was pretty funny. We had a good laugh over that.
I played piano in the studio and Kramer played a bit of organ, but even at that time, it was a matter of us listening to it together at Rat’s and establishing that Kramer would be re-doing it back at his place. I made a video for Between Livermore and Tracy when I got home with the rough mixes we had from the studio, so it was a bit difficult to hear Kramer’s version after that. I liked what I’d been listening to for the video, so I needed to get used to Kramer’s version. We’ve always mixed our albums. I mean, there’s an engineer there, and sometimes a producer, but more often than not, I feel like I’m the producer. I’m a keen listener who articulates what I want, so I tend to be at the center of communication. David will lobby for his vision when necessary and it only rarely ends up in any kind of conflict which is usually around the level of the vocals and how the guitar needs to be lower to hear the words, but neither of us wants the guitar lower. This ongoing problem has been resolved on this album.
It’s strange when one is the singer of words as a form of making music and listeners might say they can hear various words because they know what words are being delivered even when they can’t hear every little bit of them, but I want them to hear the way that word is in its entirety. If you can’t hear the ‘d’ at the end of ‘word’, for instance, then you’re not hearing the way I decided to make the ‘d’ – to end the word ‘word’ – to make my part of the music.