Tom Verlaine: Taking the TV out of Television
In the category of “Influential Bands with Legendary Debut Album that Broke Up Too Soon,” Television is always a top contender. Though the band periodically regroups for shows with its original lineup and releases an album even less frequently, its five-year, two-album existence from 1973 to 1978 still has lasting influence. Its magnificent debut, Marquee Moon, is unequivocally heralded as one of the great art-rock albums while its leader, Tom Verlaine, was instrumental in getting CBGB’s to become a live venue for New York City’s burgeoning underground music community. Verlaine has gone on to a prolific solo career, releasing ten albums on his own, including two this year after more than a decade: Around and Songs and Other Things. Verlaine’s angular, jaunty guitar riffs that defined Marquee Moon have remained with stoic resignation, as nimble and piercing as ever. So too have his lyrics returned after an extended hiatus. What’s more, Television is slowly at work on another album.
One of the first demos you cut with Television was with Brian Eno, yet it never saw the light of day. It seems that there was such a natural fit there as far as aesthetic but clearly it didn’t all go to well. Did you two ever collaborate again?
That’s way back. All I remember about it is that a guy from Island Records called and said, “I’m here in New York. Would you like to do some demos with this guy Eno,” who nobody had heard of. We said, “Yeah, okay.” So we went in for two days and that was it. The band didn’t like the sound of them at all.
I also find it intriguing that in your search for a producer for Television’s first album that you wanted Rudy Van Gelder, the ultimate master of capturing and preserving sound. I’m curious how different Marquee Moon would have sounded with him at the controls versus Andy Johns.
[laughs] I have no idea. But I still like Rudy Van Gelder’s stuff, though.
Were there any particular albums Rudy was responsible for that led you to wanting him, like Out to Lunch or something?
Just all that stuff. It all sounded good. Whenever I put on an album that sounded good as, his name was on it. So I thought, why not get him? The only rock record I’ve ever seen that he did was The Free Spirits. Larry Corryell had a rock group for six months. It’s a really wild, interesting record. He’s a pretty wild guitar player.
One of your two new albums, Around, has a notable Eastern influence that nods to the amazing traditions in a similar way jazz greats like Eric Dolphy or Yusef Latif did. The arid nature of Indian music seems well suited to your playing style.
[thought-pondering mmmm]. Well, I like all kinds of music and I grew up hearing all kinds of music. I think that maybe there’s a lot of things with drones on there. But it’s also like a lot of church music from maybe the 14th century—no, maybe earlier than that; maybe the 12th century. Usually there was a harmonium in the background. There’s a woman who was a nun named Hildegard von Bingen. Those records are really nice. You can hear the drones in those things, tons of them. The drones are really a worldwide thing now.
From what I’ve read you’re generally a “happy” person, though your recorded output has always been a bit more moody. Around seems very happy and effusive in a way previous efforts have not. Accurate or no?
It’s really not. I hope you’re going to print the questions, too. I wanted to do more kind of uptempo songs and I also wanted to do the shorter songs. So I think that leads to a record like that. And also the jammier songs, kind of like here’s the rhythm and here’s the chord thing which is one chord strummed in a certain way or a rhythm pattern or something, and I also think that leads to that kind of feeling.
I guess I say that because I was recently listening to the recent reissue of Warm Cool.
Ah, fair enough. But yeah, that’s a very different vibe going on there.
Songs and Other Things is your first vocal album since 1990’s The Wonder. Given your lyricism and writing output, was there any particular reason you stopped recording vocally until recently?
I would just say that I was in a state of suspended animation and in that state I only worked around the house and didn’t really want to get involved with the whole recording thing, so I just wrote lots of different things and I thought, “Well, if I’m going to put out this instrumental record maybe I should just record some songs as well and see how it goes.”
Do you feel as if, with or without lyrics, you’re expressing the same thing essentially?
Yeah, yeah, you could say that. It’s different from song to song, of course.
I feel like critics and fans of your music tend to separate the music and the lyrics and almost attack them separately.
I think most people don’t listen to instrumental music. That’s what it comes down to, whereas the history of music is equally instrumental. If you go into a so-called world music bin, there’s equal amounts of both, or you go into classical music there are more CDs available of instrumental music. And you have your soundtrack thing going which used to be 99% instrumental but which is now reduced to compilations of almost-hits from platinum-selling artists. It’s just a shame as there are some good soundtracks out there over the years.
Speaking of soundtracks, you’ve done some. Are you still doing the silent film soundtracks?
Yeah, that’s always kind of around. It’s hard to get gigs with it because the cost of the whole thing and the licensing of the films. It’s basically a gig that goes to art museums with screening rooms. So there’s not that many of those in the whole wide world when you get down to it. We might go to Moscow and do it next year. Then again we might do a second series, a whole ‘nother bunch of different films with different music, too.
“I saw some Shakespeare in England, and it made me think about what makes a great artist. Is it someone who’s extremely accurate in describing something? Or is it someone who is creating something that has nothing to do with what is actually happening? The thing is I’m becoming more and more detached from what it is I thought I wanted. … I don’t identify with being a musician.” Have any of these issues resolved themselves for you or are they an ever-present type of thing that’s constantly changing?
Well, I think the skill to describe anything is part of it. The sense of purpose isn’t necessarily dramatic, which is something people don’t realize all the time. You imagine someone doing something there’s often a lot of drama that gets projected on to something; a work of creation. I have to think about that one more. It’s a good question.
I always find it interesting to hear idolized musicians like yourself say of your profession, “To me, there’s minimal glamour in all this. My idea of success has always been fixed in the same place. Some records do better than others. That’s all there is.”
Well, there is a sense of purpose but it isn’t accompanied by a sense of drama or the word you use, glamour. Part of it, I always… I like the idea that people can listen to a record 50 years later, so it doesn’t matter what it sounds like or what anybody thinks about it when it’s released. Whatever word we want to use, is one of those records. In 1965, the Hot Club, Louis Armstrong’s records were some of those records. And in 1995, Albert Ayler was those records. I think that’s sort of a really important thing to keep in mind. Likewise, so many records from 1995 were already completely vanished. Whether you get a good notice or something when the record is released or no notice or not even hardly the least, it doesn’t really matter. People are picking up on it 10, 20, 50 years later and knowing that something—when they know nothing about the person who did it hardly—is really an important thing for me.
People taking albums seriously… versus live. People are burnished. Etc.
Phil Upchurch is a guitarist who has probably been on 3000 records since 1963. I don’t know how he still makes records now or records with anybody but some point in the last 15 years he said, “You used to produce a recording but now you record a production.” And this is more and more true where you have basically now in the top 10 or 20 records, a good deal of them are just some face or somebody with a song that you can auto-tune on a computer quickly. The producers are sort of the whole thing.
It seems like you were able to marry that live spontaneity with something more orchestrated for your albums, and Television in particular.
Yeah, that’s pretty good. That’s the hope, anyway.
In 1984 you said of New York: “It’s been replaced by the supermarket mentality. They sit around talking about shoes and third-rate films.” What would you say the mentality of it is now?
The shoe-store thing is even bigger than it was in ‘84. It’s just incredible how many ridiculous shoe stores are here. [laughs] It’s just completely absurd. The other thing that took over are nail parlors where people get their nails done. I never saw one of these. I think there was one on the second floor of some place on 14th street in the ‘80s but I never saw one in the ‘70s and now there’s one every block. So shoes and getting your nails done seem to be extremely important to New Yorkers.
Television periodically comes together with all its original members in a way like few other bands of its stature can or do. Is it, as you’ve commented about recording guitar solos, simply “a question of timing?”
We tend to rehearse. We rehearsed over the last two years, so we’re gradually working on another record. One that will get done, who knows it’s like so slow. The rehearsals are like once a week or twice a month. We’ve got like six or seven things we’re working on. The pressure to write songs isn’t so good. We’re not really pursuing a record deal. When we get this stuff done, we’ll record it. It’s that kind of attitude.
Tom Verlaine was interviewed by Josh Baron.