Craig Leon and his partner and wife Cassell Webb. All images courtesy Craig Leon and RVNG Intl.
In 1981 Craig Leon released an epic, meditative synthesizer record on John Fahey’s Takoma label that to this day sounds fresh, crisp, and forward thinking. At the time, the record seemed to be an oddity, with more in common with the kosmiche electronic music of Klaus Shulze than with the NYC punk groups with whom Craig was associated. Nommos and its companion album, Visiting, which was released a few years later, are Leon’s speculative recreation of the music of the Nommos, a mythical alien race who figure in the ancient religion of the Dogon people of Mali. The apparent simplicity of the music gives way, over the course of the records, to a conceptual complexity and compositional rigor that is rare in the synth music of the time. Nommos sounds timeless in its sonics as well as in its imaginary scope.
But to say that Craig was ahead of his time is not completely accurate. His production work with bands like the Ramones, Blondie, and Suicide helped to define a sound of the times. Leon, who is based in London, has since continued working occasionally on pop records—notably, records by the Fall and Blondie, among many others. However, he now works primarily in the contemporary classical world, where he is a highly respected producer. Though you may not have heard the album that most consider to be his masterpiece, if you grew up in the ’70s, ’80s, or ’90s, chances are you’ve heard the work of Craig Leon.
Though a version of Nommos was reissued against Leon’s wishes last year, a new definitive reissue of the two records—bearing the tongue-in-cheek title Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music, Vol. 1—will be released on June 24 by RVNG Intl. Following a successful multimedia presentation of Nommos in St. Petersburg last year, Craig and his wife and collaborator Cassell Webb again performed Nommos at Moogfest 2014 and at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City a few months ago—and they have more plans for more performances.
I was honored to talk with Leon about growing into music, his early days in New York City, what would be playing on an extraterrestrial Walkman, and what it means to make a great piece of music.
Scott Davis You know Craig, I was just listening to the first Ramones record and I noticed that the guitar is always on the right but on the demos I notice that’s not the case.
Craig Leon Well, I don’t know which demos you’re listening to. If everything’s split, even if it’s backwards, those are the ones that I did. That came from when we were fooling around with ideas on how to finish the record. In the beginning they weren’t split.
SD How did you figure that out? That might be one of the keys to that record sounding as good as it does.
CL We fooled around with that for a long time. I don’t think anyone has ever asked me about this before! In any case, we were trying to do something new with them. Strangely enough, the band thought they were going to be very big in the pop world. Not like the Velvet Underground, or even what they are known as now, but like a Bay City Rollers or even One Direction kind of thing. (laughter) They thought they were going to be a huge teeny bop success. Jeff (Joey Ramone) was really in love with bands like Herman’s Hermits and all these Mickey Most-produced acts from the ’60s from England. That’s where he got that affected English accent. (laughter)
I thought the thing that they had to do to set themselves apart from the pack was to sound totally unique. They were actually a bit of performance art band at the beginning, more than a rock band per se. There were a couple of hard rock albums that had come out before them that were really hard-edged. Bands from Detroit like the MC5 …
SD Stooges …
CL The Stooges. The New York Dolls were kind of like that, but they were kind of more like the Stones—a messy version of the Stones but really hardcore. Also, some garage bands like the Sonics. Anyhow, I wanted the record to sound as powerful as possible—but you have to realize, we didn’t have a lot of time to make the record. There was like a weekend left to mix it. Two days—not even full days. It didn’t really matter though. If you listen to the record you can tell if you could mix one song, you could mix the whole thing. Not quite—
SD —But then that becomes an approach…
CL That was the approach! The idea was to take it in to the label as a unified piece of art, but I said, Look, to be the most powerful thing—as opposed to a lot of these wimpy records that were going around in 1976 or whenever it was—we need to do it in mono. I did a fabulous mono mix of the album, which to this day hasn’t surfaced. I have a copy, and maybe Tommy has a copy, but I don’t think they’ve ever put it out on any of those Rhino reissues or anything like that, which is really surprising. Some of the songs were done as radio singles, you know, B-sides or whatever. If you can find the promo singles, some of the mono stuff is there because you know there were still mono radio stations in those days on AM radio. If you see a stereo/mono, the mono is actually the best mix of all of it.
What happened was, when we turned it in to Seymour Stein, he played it for the distributor and the distributor hated it. It was ABC Records at the time and they just hated the band. They also said, “We only put out stereo records, we don’t put out mono records.” This threw us into a quandary, so we had to go back and say, We’re not gonna do it in mono, we’re going to just re-mix it. We booked it for that one weekend and gave it a conventional kind of stereo mix and gave it that later Ramones sound: you know, bass and drums down the middle sort of and all of that, and it just didn’t have the impact.
We said, It could be really cool to do something like those old ’60s British records. A lot of those records had very wide and weird stereo splits on them because multi-track wasn’t as advanced in the UK, believe it or not, as it was in the US. By the time we got into sixteen track in the US they were still on four-track. Because of that, there was a very simple recording technique in which the bass player and the drummer would be isolated on track one and all of the guitars would be on track two. Then you’d have the vocals and tambourines or whatever else you could fit on track three, and then horns or guitar solos or something on track four. That was it. So when they do the splits in the mix, you would end up with the bass and drums on one side, guitars all on the other. If you listen to an old Beatles record on the English pressings in stereo, you’ll hear it.
“Hard Day’s Night” was one of the role models for some of the sonics on the Ramones record, believe it or not. It was one of many. Can was another one, but that’s another story. Hawkwind also was certainly one. But in any case, what happened there was that we decided to go for that—which was, in our own bizarre way, in total isolation from everybody. We put the bass on one side, the drums down the middle, the guitars on the right, and the vocals in a weird stereo split which was called artificial tape delay, and was invented at Abbey Road by George Martin and Geoff Emerick for John Lennon because he didn’t like how he sounded. You split the voice with a tape delay and run it faster and slower where it goes up and down in tuning, which gives it a kind of chorus effect.
SD Ah yes, where he sounds like he’s singing back-up for himself.
CL Yeah, and that’s exactly what we did with Jeff. Having said that, the mono mix doesn’t have that. The one on the record that everybody knows does have that, but that’s why we did it. It was a conscious attempt to do something different. We wanted to try to do something that was like the Beatles—they actually thought they were going to be as big as the Beatles, and I think they almost made it in a weird way! Strangely enough, the roots of the New York scene were beat poetry and the Andy Warhol art scene. A lot of members of all the bands were involved in both of those, myself included.
SD Total Pop.
CL Yeah, pop art all the way. Now we’re in an age in which things are developing to where we have these multimedia things of interest. It’s not a “record,” or a “video,” or a “piece of art-work,” or “a poem.” It’s all of that at once.
Craig Leon and the Ramones during the recording of their debut album.
SD We have all the tools at our disposal.
CL Yeah, it’s like, What do we want to create today? In a way, it’s all the things people wished could have happened in the ’60s and ’70s, believe it or not.
SD So you’re into it?
CL Oh yeah, absolutely. What we’re doing with Nommos now is multimedia—it’s not just a synth record. We’re doing it with synths, orchestra, and a video presentation that we put together that runs with it, and we’ve even done it as dance. It was originally a dance thing in one of its early incarnations in 1981, and has been revived by Karole Armitage, from the old Merce Cunningham dance theater, who has her own troupe called Armitage Gone! Dance. She did some of it last year in New York and I think she’s planning on doing the whole thing either this season or the one after. It’s dance, video, electronic music, and acoustic music. We’re trying to do that on every project we do now with it.
SD I read about this label that reissued the record against your wishes….
CL Yeah, I asked him not to do it and he went ahead and did it anyway. I was planning on doing what we’ve done now for a while. It takes me a long time to get around to doing anything with reissues because I’m so involved with the new things that I’m doing. While I was messing around, Nommos came out as a bootleg on one of these “great white wonder from another planet” labels. (laughter) Which is brilliant, but it was terrible sounding—so actually it wasn’t so brilliant. These guys put out what they thought was the definitive version of the old album. I had always envisioned a different version of the album being the definitive version—which is what we’ve got now—but I was in the process of putting that out through one of the several distributors here of my classical music, or of my non-pop material. I don’t really do much pop material anymore.
SD A different version in what way?
CL Well, Nommos and Visiting were designed to be mirror images of each other and they should be one piece. They are now, and they have things now linking them together. Some of the things there now are to make it sound like one seventy-four minute piece rather than two different albums.
SD I definitely get that.
CL We have two different versions out. We have the RVNG reissue, which is a two-album definitive artistic version which I really, really love, and then we have the European version that follows my classical base, released through my label in France with a friend of mine who is another classical producer. That goes through Harmonia Mundi France, which is an extremely good classical label that splits itself between very early music and very modern French music. They put out a lot of Philippo Martino and Messiaen and things like that. Harmonia Mundi is very happy to put out any of my “left field” work, shall we say, for lack of a better term, and they classify Nommos and Visiting as that.
SD What’s the appeal of the space and Dogon theme? Where did that come from? Here you are, a pretty straight-forward pop producer, but then you make this synth record that’s conceptually based on this tribe from Africa with a heavy ancient astronaut legend.
CL It’s not conceptually based on the Dogon. It’s not advocating the Dogon religion or anything like that. But I was just very intrigued by the Dogon. Going back to the New York Scene—just to give you some personal background—the Lower East Side scene was very involved with counterculture art and poetry. It became populist later, but if you look at Patti Smith, Television, Talking Heads, even the Ramones, they’re from this New York City—I hate to use the word “avant-garde,” because its so overused, but it really was an isolated scene.
SD It was different.
CL It was stuff that was really different. Nommos fit in with that. I mean Robert Anton Wilson, who is a great writer, wrote about the Dogon very early on. William Burroughs did as well. It wasn’t like this stuff was unknown. What happened was, my wife Cassell and I saw an exhibition of Dogon art at a museum and got the book. Later on, we found an older catalogue of Dogon art from the Brooklyn Museum about all of these Dogon sculptures. The titles of the songs or pieces are taken from the names or titles of these sculptures: “She Wears A Hemispherical Skull-cap,” and so on. I was intrigued that there could be a tribe who had all of their culture devoted to one thing. Kierkegaard wrote, “Purity of the heart is to will one thing.” The purity of their art is to make representations of these guys, the Nommos, and that’s all they did. Everything was representative of this post-creation myth they have about how they got their culture and how they learned from the Nommos and what the Nommos taught them to do and how they intermingled with them. On a speculative level, let’s say they were right. These guys, the Nommos, if they brought all these things with them, would have brought their music with them as well. They would have had to listen to something on an interplanetary flight from Sirius to here. Otherwise it would have been very boring. (laughter) To put in the terms of the time, I asked myself, What would have been on the Nommos’s Walkman? That’s what the record is about and that’s why we called it, very tongue in cheek, The Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music. That’s what it is. It’s a combination of very, very, early forms of African rhythm, and very early, simple, five-tone scales, which comprise some of the earliest music we know of on our planet. If these guys brought something as simple as how to grow corn, then they would have brought some of their very simple music. I thought, Well, I’m not going to be pedantic and try to write or recreate African music. I’d rather create a whole new mythological world and have this be its musical system, and this is the way they hear things. Because, if they’re amphibious creatures, they’re underwater a lot of the time, so they hear things in a very garbled kind of way and in a very metallic way. I just created a kind of science fiction piece out of it. I’ve never brought that out in interviews too heavily or anything, but it kind of makes sense when you go back and listen to the record like that, rather than if you think it’s some kind of tribal world music, which it isn’t at all.
SD Have you done much research into the therapeutic benefits of tones or music or anything like that?
CL Yeah, I’ve read a lot books about that stuff—psycho-acoustics and psycho-biology.
SD Because I listen to Nommos and Visiting and I get that.
CL That’s because it’s very pure, tonally, and simple—to be brief, Pythagorean principles have a lot to do with it. If you want to research some of the very first writings on music by Nicomachus, they’re awesome. I would say you’ve hit it right on the head, because there is a lot of that in the record. It’s “healing music” in a very broad sense. It’s the simplicity of the scales, modes, and patterns and the melodic stuff that’s in it. It’s intended to be that, as well as being sci-fi.
SD Did you set out to make a synth record?
CL It was meant to be orchestral but we didn’t have any money! That’s why I’m gradually recreating the orchestral version. I wanted to do it with orchestral instruments and have them all treated, which is theoretically the version we are going to do, but it’s very expensive.
SD And time consuming I suppose…
CL Well, not really time consuming, because I wrote out what you hear on the record. It wasn’t improvised or anything. I’m looking at the score of it here right now that I have for the orchestra.
SD Oh wow.
CL I’ve been only working in orchestral and vocal music for about the last fifteen years—really since the last Blondie album that I worked on in 1999. Then I went back to my day job working on quote-unquote serious music. (laughter)
SD Did you start early on with classical music?
CL I started playing the piano and was playing and writing music when I was very young. I took instructions at the local college when I was still in junior high school. I got my teaching certificate when I was fifteen or so. Then, in the ’60s, what I thought was really relevant was pop and soul music because I grew up in the South.
SD Where was this?
CL In Pine Island, Florida, which is about as far away as you can possibly get from where I live now! (laughter) That’s one thing I vowed to do when I was growing up: get out of there and go somewhere completely different. My father had a very extensive library, so I started reading when I was very young. I became really fascinated with ancient philosophy and ancient religion even when I was a kid. I still have a large collection of all of those kinds of subjects that’s grown over the years. I wanted to see Rome and places like that, which I ended up doing. I was tired of looking at alligators. (laughter)
SD So maybe that planted the seed. Were your parents musical?
CL Oh yeah, they loved the classical music of the time. My mother played piano. I would sit under the piano and hear things and then I’d start banging out my own stuff at four or five years old. They sent me to a very good teacher from Germany who had taught at Oberlin College and retired near us. She taught me the dramatic method of playing the piano. I was playing sophisticated pieces, and the usual repertoire of Bach and Liszt, when I was very, very young. But then in the ’60s I thought it was much cooler to be involved with pop music, so I used my classical knowledge to learn to arrange and produce records. I had the advantage of watching Arif Mardin and all these great pop people down in Florida constructing records that were done almost the same way as classical records, which is kind of what we did. “We” meaning me and the people I was working with—not so much on the Ramones, but on things like Blondie. They’re constructed absolutely. Mike Chapman carried that one step further with them afterwards. Giorgio Moroder did it, too.
SD Yeah, those records are very tightly arranged and don’t sound thrown together at all.
CL Yeah, very constructed. They’re not jammy records.
SD When and why did you move to New York City?
CL I moved to Miami first, but I went to NYC when I was very young. This was ’73, I believe—that was when I permanently moved there. I moved up to work at Sire Records. I had been up a few times before. I was working in Florida and had my own recording studio, playing and writing charts and stuff. It was a big studio called Criteria studio. One of the engineers and I built our own little studio and I was rehearsing a band for one of the owners of Sire Records there. He liked what I was doing, so he offered me a job working for him in New York. So I went to work for what Sire Records was in those days: a very small, independent, RVNG-type record company.
SD With Seymour Stein?
CL Yes, Seymour Stein and Richard Gottehrer were the owners in those days. Seymour eventually bought Richie out. Richie was actually the guy who brought me up from Florida to New York to be his assistant, and then he just about immediately left the label. (laughter) Then I was working for Seymour, who I barely knew. Of course, I got to know him much better. As far as Seymour goes, you couldn’t find anyone who knew more about the record business, at least who had that feel for pop music. He’s an encyclopedia. If you want to know who produced the B-side of a single by the Jacks in 1955, he’d know it and he’d sing it! (laughter) He’s a human jukebox. He knows about all of it—not all genres, but definitely pop, soul, and rock, and doo-wop, the foundations of rock music, and folk as well. Though it’s not well known, Sire signed a lot of great folk artists, and a lot of great jazz artists as well, for that matter. It was a very eclectic label.
SD I would think that it’s important for someone working in the record business to be as well rounded as possible. Did you start as a producer, or in A&R?
CL Well, both, being that it was a small independent company. A&R and producer were the same thing. There weren’t many independent producers then. It was just starting to come into vogue. It was just the start of all of that. If you found a band, you guided them through and you produced the record, usually. Like I said, I was brought up as an assistant to Richie with the view that I was going to find bands and produce them. I worked with some bands that they already had, and actually worked with Sire for quite awhile before we did the Ramones. I was trying to get them signed for quite some time but it wasn’t as easy as the myth makes it sound. Before that I worked with lots of bands. The Climax Blues Band, that was the first, then Nektar, and Chilliwack. I mastered a History of British Rock collection and worked on Del Shannon records. I worked with Bob Marley on a record. We did this reggae record with a girl called Martha Velez, with Bob Marley and Lee Perry working on the production side of it.
SD Did they come to New York or did you go to Jamaica to work on that?
CL It was in Jamaica and New York. I knew Bob from Florida because he would occasionally go to Criteria to do records. This was just the Wailers, before they became Bob Marley & the Wailers. My engineer friend Alex, who built the little studio with me down the road from Criteria, worked with Bob. Martha wanted to make a reggae record and she brought the “Stir It Up” record by Johnny Nash to my office and said she wanted to make a record like this. Reggae wasn’t really popular at all in the states, but anyhow I said, “You don’t want Johnny Nash to make the record, you want the guy who wrote the song to make your record!” So I got in touch with Bob and his manager and we had some meetings with Seymour and Richie, and eventually he said that he’d do the record. We did it at Harry J studio in Jamaica. I wasn’t there much for that, but I did the vocals and the mixing and some of the overdubs with Bob at Regent Sound, which was an old jazz studio on 48th street.
SD Where was Sire located? In midtown?
CL No, up on 72nd street on the Upper West Side, which wasn’t very trendy then. If you’ve ever seen the old cult movie Panic In Needle Park—
SD It’s Verdi Square now! I’ve spent a lot of time there. I heard it used to be really sketchy.
CL Yeah, right there at 72nd and Broadway. It was a very edgy part of town, to say the least.
SD Did people live near the Bowery back then, or was that the nightlife destination?
CL The rents were cheap, so a lot of poets, artists, and most of the bands lived in the vicinity of the Bowery. The Ramones lived around the corner; Blondie lived across the street. Richard Hell lived more in the Alphabet City area. It was definitely a localized scene. I moved down there later, but I lived near Sire when I was working for them. It was just as downtrodden of a neighborhood as the Bowery. I lived on Amsterdam near Central Park West. Nowadays, you’d think you’d have to be Sting or someone to live over there, but back then it was really just disheveled brownstones. It was a step up from the Bowery—which was really bad—but not by much.
SD So it was a pretty tight-knit scene then?
CL It was, but not like the horrible movie made about CBGB’s last year made it out to be. It’s a long, involved story—and again, there’s a lot of mythology attached to it, but it pretty much started with the band Television and their manager, Terry Ork, who actually convinced Hilly Kristal to start booking bands at CBGB’s. And of course, they’d invite their friends—their friends being Patti Smith, and the Ramones, and so on. Richard Hell played in Television at that time. From there it spread to all these bands who were kind of migrating down to play, but there were also other places. There was The Kitchen, in Soho, which was more artistic; and Max’s Kansas City, which was up on Park Avenue South—a little out of the bounds of the East Village, a few blocks north of 14th street. All the bands played in that radius, with a couple of outposts in New Jersey, and other local places that would book those kinds of bands. It wasn’t known as punk rock in those days, and most of the shows were the bands playing to each other and a few friends.
SD Where does Suicide fit into all that?
CL Suicide was there very, very early, actually. Suicide predates CBGB’s. They’re kind of from the New York Dolls era. They’re from the Mercer Arts Center scene, which was the precursor to CBGB’s, although Max’s was also around then. They were always doing what they did. They were one of the first bands I saw in New York as an A&R guy. A very well-known writer and A&R friend of mine named Paul Nelson introduced me to a couple of other labels saying, If you don’t like the deal from Sire, maybe you can get a job somewhere else. So I auditioned for a job at this one label; it was after I had just seen Suicide. They asked me what band I would sign out of all the bands I’d seen in New York during the few weeks that I’d been there. I said Suicide, and they kicked me out the door immediately. (laughter)
I actually saw Suicide before I’d even moved up there on one of my earlier trips to New York in ’72.
SD Suicide to me is extremely dystopian and sci-fi…
CL Oh yeah. They loved a band called Silver Apples, a local synth band in New York at the time, and also Tonto’s Expanding Head Band—in contrast to what I was influenced by when making their album: old Rockabilly and Soul like James Brown. But Suicide wasn’t a synth band. They didn’t even have a synth. The Suicide record just had a combo organ and an old cocktail lounge organ that had a little rhythm box on the side. (laughter) All their rhythms are from that. No synthesizer at all. They ran everything through a bunch of old valve tube radios, which distorted everything to death. It all came out of one output and that was the sound on the record. I just applied some of the reggae stuff I’d learned from Lee Perry, like repeat echoes, and echo feeding back on itself, which is also from Sun Records, and microtonal EQ, which comes from records by Can and Neu! and a lot of the German bands.
SD Wow, did Alan Vega and Martin Rev know these records?
CL I don’t think they did know the German stuff, but they were very well-versed in Rockabilly and Soul. You know Marty is a very well-studied classical avant-garde musician, so he would have known of Lamonte Young and all of the New York keyboard-oriented scene—the John Cage world.
SD So this sound didn’t come out of nowhere.
CL No, it all makes sense if you put it all together. That’s why a record like Nommos actually fits into that scene more so than you could imagine. It’s only through the years that people have associated that era of music in New York with the punk music that came out of Detroit before it and the music that came out of London later. The art scene influence—a band like the Velvet Underground was an outgrowth of an art movement. I’m sure Lou Reed thought people were going to be snapping their fingers to “Waiting For the Man,” but in reality, there was no way in hell! They were an art band. Suicide influenced a lot of other bands that I worked with later, like Front 242 from Belgium. I did some stuff with them and their spin-off, Cobalt 60. They also had quite an influence on Mark E. Smith of the Fall, with whom I did three albums. They influenced a lot of the very poppy synth bands, not unlike guitar bands, who saw the Ramones and thought, Hey, I can do this. They’d get knocked out by this weird sound and mutate it into their own thing which became, let’s say, Soft Cell or Pet Shop Boys. That’s a kind of a folk process, which is something that’s always intrigued me. Rock ‘n’ roll had that. A synth blues band would have been a cool thing to do.
SD Make it happen!
CL I can’t sing! (laughter)
SD Can you tell me some things about Jeffrey Lee Pierce?
CL He was a very important guy—kind of an unsung hero.
SD When I was younger, I had a dubbed cassette of Wildweed that accompanied me on many a road trip. It just fit perfectly with the road. He really had that ramblin’ man kind of trip, didn’t he?
CL He was a real on-the-road kind of guy and he loved to travel. He was like an old itinerant bluesman, the closest modern version of that I’ve seen. I imagine that he would have been a kindred spirit to Robert Johnson or someone like that. He loved music and was fascinated with Blondie, obviously, with the Blondie fan club he founded and everything.
I was going to do a Gun Club album, but they broke up for who knows why. I have no idea. What I did end up doing was a Jeffrey Lee Pierce album with no band. We put together a band for him very quickly, and that was that album. It was a very spontaneous record. He’d spent some time with Burroughs and his cohorts and was doing a lot of stream of consciousness writing. He would write the lyrics on a typewriter in the office of the studio—which was Pink Floyd’s. They virtually loaned the studio to us. Jeffrey would sit in the office and type out all of the songs and then come in and bang out some chords on the guitar. We had a session bass player and drummer from a couple of other bands that were pretty adventurous, and they would just pick it up and play it. The songs were pretty much done on the spot. He had some idea of what the songs would be, but they didn’t really take shape until the minute we recorded them. So what we got was a very spontaneous record with a lot of feeling. It has an urgency.
You get an idea sometimes, and it may not be the crystallized or refined version, but it certainly has an energy and excitement because it’s the first time you’ve ever heard it, or seen it if you write it. That comes across on every one of those songs because it’s true. That’s what was happening.
SD Did you follow Conny Plank’s music?
CL Well, I knew Conny Plank and I knew his work. I was more into the more underground German bands: Can, Neu!, Faust, early Tangerine Dream, Ash Ra Tempel, Popol Vuh. There was a label called Cosmic Couriers with all those bands on it. I had all those records. I wanted to sign them to Sire, but Seymour would throw them in the bin! Those bands were in a scene in Germany similar to what we were doing in New York. You’ve got these bands making soundtracks for underground movies and art projects, rather than just making rock ‘n’ roll records to get on the radio.
SD Well, Suicide didn’t sell a whole lot of records, did they?
CL No! He was right! None of these bands sold any records—except for maybe Kraftwerk—but it wasn’t a point to sell records in those days. It was about making a great record and hoping people would come around to it—and with certain records, like Suicide’s, they did. You know, Suicide did make a profit for whoever invested the 3000 dollars that it took to make the record. (laughter) We made the record in a weekend. It wasn’t like the Eagles taking six months.
SD What do you think makes a good record?
CL Oh, gosh—something that takes you to another place. There’s an old author called Arthur Machen, whose work I love and collect, who writes supernatural fiction. He wrote a philosophy book about writing called Hieroglyphics, and he says that what makes something writing, as opposed to putting a bunch of words together, is creating a sense of ecstasy and otherworldliness. It’s something that takes you out of the ordinary, out of the mundane and into a different way of thinking, even if it’s only for thirty seconds. I’ll just apply that to any of the arts. It doesn’t mean that it’s got to be something that’s profound, it can be something that’s very sensual—as long as it takes you out of your ordinary self, then I think it’s good. If you can do that in your work and get other people to feel it, then I think you’re accomplishing something.
SD How have you managed to do that throughout your own work?
CL I just try to pick projects to which I feel I can add something that does that. Now, it’s a lot easier because I write them myself, or I arrange them or orchestrate them, at the very least. In the area that I’m working in now, I have much more control.
Even on some of the more “classical” things that I do there are elements that are very similar to all of the bands we’ve been talking about, if you listen closely. If you heard Nommos played by a full orchestra, as opposed to by synths—without any treatment—it would sound like the folkier records that I’ve done in classical, like Andrea Scholl and The American Folk Songs Project.
SD Do you think you’ve been lucky in that respect?
CL Yeah! But it’s also about being at the right place right time. Some people build their careers on that. I don’t know if you will it to go and do it or not, but I was just lucky enough to walk into a bar on the Bowery where Patti Smith was playing, and then see the Ramones and the Talking Heads. Then having the vision that these people were capable of the thing we just talked about—to take you to another place. Whether they were entertaining or not is another story, but you can’t be mundane and listen to David Byrne, you know?
Craig Leon is an American-born producer, composer and arranger, who has been instrumental to the production of such iconic music as that of the Ramones and Blondie. For more on Leon and the Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music Vol. 1, visit the RVNG Intl. website.