Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
After 14 years apart doing solo projects, the chemistry of Tom Verlaine, Richard Lloyd, Fred Smith and Billy Ficca remains intact as evidenced on their newly released third album, Television.
After 14 years apart doing solo projects, the chemistry of Tom Verlaine, Richard Lloyd, Fred Smith and Billy Ficca remains intact as evidenced on their newly released third album, Television. Now we can spiral toward the 21st century in an orgy of fiery guitar virtuosity. The poetry hasn’t missed a beat. Superceding the anarchy of the ’70s punk explosion, Television became a legend before their first album was released. In Television, Television has created a third classic.
Tod Wizon I see your music as the link with San Francisco music from the ’60s. (laughter) It’s psychedelic, not in style, but in terms of the music you’ve assimilated.
Tom Verlaine That’s pretty ironic, because I didn’t like any San Francisco bands when I was growing up. After our first record came out, everybody was saying, “Oh, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Raga Rock … .” It’s just the twangy guitars. We sound more like the Ventures, in a psychedelic way.
TW There’s a baroque style to the guitar playing—and an atmosphere—a sense of people really playing their instruments.
Richard Lloyd Well, we do tend to do 20 minute versions of songs live.
Billy Ficca We exaggerate the arrangement. (laughter)
TW Fire Engine was recorded by the 13th Floor Elevators. It’s a great cover; you really rip into that. You have assimilated all this music.
TV I don’t know that we’ve assimilated it. It’s just that we’re all extreme in the same way—we’re extreme characters.
RL You listened to it for the purpose of taking it in?
TW No, basically, soaked it up. You were alive at the time—you soaked it up; it’s a part of your playing.
TV We didn’t do the original words because I could never figure out what he was saying except for, “dmt space.” (laughter) Which I thought was, “the empty space.” I worked a bunch of lyrics around that image. So, it was actually our song except for the word “fire engine.”
TW What songs do you cover now?
TV The Chocolate Watchband song called Don’t Need Your Loving Anymore.
RL Two chord songs. Two chord songs are more fun than three chord songs.
TW Your songs are woven, spun, you know? I’m trying not to use the word laid back, but the new record starts where your last album, Adventure, left off. Adventure is wistful. On this record the narratives are a little fractured, there’s more detail in the music, and all the solos seem to be held in. The end of Rocketsounds like there are exhaust pipes on a Princeton amplifier. That last note is just sublime.
TV It actually was a Princeton amplifier. It’s that flying saucer fuzz-face.
TW You don’t use any extra equipment?
TV Oh, yeah, we do. Weird boxes. There’s a couple of ways to get that underwater sound.
TW Do you compose on piano?
TV Not on this record.
TW Mostly on guitar? How does it work? Most songs have a real composed feeling. Richard, does Tom play songs for you and then you add your parts?
RL It’s not that simple.
TV Sometimes it’s that simple. I’m playing the structure and the band’s playing along, and then we change the structure, and then we change the parts until the song isn’t anything like it was. I don’t like the word “composed” because it implies writing it down. I’ve never written down. It’s like, can we try this, or can we try that.
TW Is it interpreted by each member?
RL What do you mean “interpreted”?
TW Each band member plays parts that they think will fit.
RL Well, that’s the beginning of some things. Sometimes Tom will have a part for me, already. Sometimes I’ll play Tom’s part so he can develop it. Other times Tom’ll just play a structure, and we will come up with parts, and maybe I’ll have two or three different ideas and we’ll pick between them. But then the new parts, whether it’s the drums or whether it’s the guitar, will suddenly make the structure want to change. Tom will change the structure, and then the part doesn’t work anymore, so then the parts gotta change. Then you finally get a structure and the parts are fine but it needs a sound. So you’ll plug it into fifteen amps, and when you finally get the sound, the sound will tell the part it’s gotta change. And then Tom will go, “Well, maybe the verse should be the chorus, and the chorus should be the bridge, and we should cut it in the middle and start … .”
TW It sounds like fucking murder.
TV In the case of one song. Another song on the record was me and Billy jamming for four minutes on tape.
TW When I said simple, I really meant that in the end, it is played with ease.
TV It is played with ease. The process Richard’s talking about takes place on about one out of every four songs. Another song might be me and Billy blasting away on rhythm guitar and drums. And Richard hasn’t ever heard it, and then he comes in and he goes, “What’s this?” and, “Let’s play something else on it.” And all of a sudden, it gets worked into a song. It just comes out. “Rocket” is an example of that.
TW There is a nice mesh to it, guitars coming in three notes later. It seems like it was done with ease—I know it wasn’t.
TV But it was, most of it was.
TW It has a transcendent quality to me.
TV REM or U2, all these big bands have one guitarist. And the bands that have two tend to both strum and slam. With us it’s an interplay.
TW How do you see yourselves in terms of other bands? To me, you stick out.
BF Like a big sore thumb? Green and throbbing.
TW You’ve got four guys playing their hearts out on stage.
TV There are some other bands out there, I think.
TW There’s a lot of embellishment out there, a lot less conviction.
TV I don’t know about that.
TW Have you been listening? Is there anyone you’ve been listening to that’s inspiring, that’s an influence of any kind? Do you listen to music?
RL Sometimes I’ll go for two weeks just listening to a bunch of records, and then I’ll go for two years not listening to anything.
TW What about rock and roll? What do you think it can possibly do now for anybody?
TV It’s teenage music!
TW Is what you play rock and roll?
TV They did a survey of young girls and every one of these girls’ favorite song on our record was the first one. Everyone else thought this was a weird song because it has a very low key vocal … .
RL Our record? Who did this survey?
TV Twelve-year-old girls love that song.
BF Who did the survey?
TV I did.
BF Where did you get hold of these girls?
TV These are kids whose parents I’ve known for 20 years.
RL This hardly constitutes a survey.
TV Kids love getting a tape. They’ve never heard of the band; they just play it and they like it or they don’t like it. All three were completely spooked by Mars.
TW 1880 is the one they liked?
TV 1880 was the song they just creamed for. They just thought it was so pretty and romantic.
TW It’s a very gentle song.
TV Unlike their parents who like the other songs. Maybe it’s melody, you know. Because the guitars are always doing little melody figures, which isn’t a thing many bands do now.
TW To me it’s lyrical, rather than melodic because it flies. Your classic first record has got all the rawness and anxiety of living in a city. And then Adventure is more refined, lyrical. The new album sounds like a continuation of that refinement. Did you feel comfortable playing together again after all these years? Have you guys been seeing each other this whole time, socially … ?
TV and BF (simultaneously) Fred and I have been dating for years.
TV (laughter) And Billy and I have occasional dates.
TW Your music evokes The Byrds. That wash of guitars. There’s a certain bunch of bands, Buffalo Springfield, The Byrds … .
TV The melodic sort of tunes, that’s what they came out of.
TW There’s something even more revelatory, spiritual. It’s supposed to be rock and roll, but it’s way beyond that. People are really inspired; it changes their life. They get a different take on life, just listening to the songs.
TV Do you think that changes somebody’s life?
TW The music you play is filled with detail. And the more you listen to it, the richer it becomes because one picks up on more of the detail, the nuance, the mind set. The narrative is not: “My baby left me,” “I miss her,” or, “I’m too high to talk.” It’s a very circuitous route. And on that route you pick up a lot of emotional stuff.
TV Yeah, maybe, maybe. But often it is other characters talking, you know. Like the Shane song started out as an idea. I said, “I know what this song is! This is a song about a woman who discovers nymphomania as a religious epiphany.” (laughter)
BF In the Old West.
TV I don’t know if that’s called a plot; there is a “what” behind each song.
TW An angle?
TV An angle or a story or an incident or … .
TW Okay, a theme. If there are three different voices in the song, it takes you on a journey—all kinds of mindsets, that’s why I find the music psychedelic. I don’t mean in terms of psychosis, I mean in terms of embellishment, a kind of baroqueness. There’s also more irony in the new album, more of a lightheartedness about your writing. Is that true?
TV Well, not while I’m doing it, but if I have to talk about it, I become detached and that makes it lighter. Some of those songs were improvised. I had a chorus for This Tune. The rest of the lyrics, I sang through for half an hour with the microphone, filled up some tracks, and looked at it and thought, “Oh, I see what’s going on here,” and switched some lines around. In 1880, I was trying to capture newspapers in 19th-century America. They always published poems, by housewives and their readers—little love poems, Poem To Ben, or whatever. That’s what those lyrics are except for the line, “That’s where it’s at.”
TW I’ll tell you what it reminds me of. It reminds me of Place of Dead Roads by Burroughs. He describes this old Western town … .
TV That’s what it reminds you of, that song?
TW … and the streets are like, dusty … No?
TV Are we talking about 1880?
TW Yeah, the first song.
TV That reminds you of dusty, old time Western roads?
TW You’re making me really paranoid.
TV To me that was New England. I think it’s interesting that one song could put somebody in a completely different state of mind than the intention.
TW I have a very associative mind. When I paint, I play music, but I’m really involved in what I’m doing so I’ll only hear snippets of songs. Your songs resonate; the music has real power.
RL You think that’s because things are assimilated?
TV I think it’s because things are rejected.
TW That’s quite possibly better.
TV At least from song to song. There’s a lot of chord rejection on this record, a don’t-play-chords idea. There are choruses that have chords. But often the chord is only four notes.
TW Augmented, diminished chords, and major chords.
TV Strange little things.
TW It takes balls to write a line like—what is it? “I’m entering the tender years.”
TV What’s that on? Is that on our record? Oh, I actually know the lyrics you’re talking about, “For the tender things that are upon me now.” Very 19th century.
TW It’s very over the top emotionally.
TV Yeah, I guess it is.
TW And that’s going to really strike people.
TV A slap in the face. Do you think the average listener is going to be sensitive to all this?
TV I don’t.
BF You gotta figure that it’s more important to influence people who are going to influence other people. Most people drink a Coke and don’t even think about who designed the bottle. People are being influenced by other people without even knowing it. And it’s more important to deal with the people who are doing the influencing, that smaller group of people.
TW That’s admirably put. Fourteen years after the fact, you have people starting bands who have only heard of you second hand. And it’s going to be that generation, and the generation beyond that.
BF You know, in the ’50s, people designed cars that are classics.
TV Well, there’s no American design in automobiles anymore. American cars should have stayed indulgent and big and stupid.
TW Everything’s looking generic.
TV Well, it’s all aerodynamic design now, so everything looks the same.
BF I guess we’re not aerodynamic. (laughter)
RL We don’t fly.
TW Because you stood by your guns. There’s an evolution. But it’s not like you’ve jumped ship and started using drum machines, and copped to all this technology.
RL We cop to technology. It’s just that our choice of technology is primarily analogue, and primarily tube centered.
TW You both use tube amplifiers, still?
RL Right. It’s not that we’re denying progress; it’s just that of the palette that’s available, these are the things each of us, individually and collectively, liked.
TV There can be a certain loss of character with state of the art.
TW There often is a loss of character. I bought a fuzz box, it’s made by one of those new companies: it’s a small rectangular fuzz box. I have a Big Muff that I’ve had for years; it works great.
TV It’s not really a fuzz tone, though, it’s more like a pre-amp.
RL It sounds thin, probably. Grizzled and ugly.
TW No, it doesn’t sound grizzled and ugly, it sounds square.
TV Well, often those boxes are square waves. It’s just a matter of whether the transistors are geranium or not.
TW There’s no danger in it, no sense of accident. Is there some kind of lineage? How important do you think you are. (laughter)
TV To me it’s a question of whether the whole field of so-called rock music could ever be important. My new thing is the genius behind the theme from Mr. Lucky. (someone hums melody) What a bizarre little melody. Peter Gunn is real genius.
BF Well, who wrote the Groucho Marx theme? I think that’s brilliant.
TW I see you guys working in a niche by yourselves.
BF We always were. We’re really a lonely band.
TW Suddenly you read what the magazines say about those first two records … It must make your heads pretty big, right?
TW No, really?
TV No. The caliber of journalism has gotten so fucking low.
TW I see you guys laboring by yourselves. You shut out other sources to make your music more unique. You deny …
TV You have a preference that you work with. So you don’t really deny anything; it’s not that aggressive. Denial is actually aggressive. It’s really preference.
TW You talk about Cream, Hendrix, and the Doors, those people were artists. They had a real vision. And Quicksilver, Country Joe and the Fish. There was a sense of experimentation in the ’60s that’s never returned. Whether it was the drugs that were fracturing people into pieces … there was no narrative, no more balance. Or the narrative became completely different, and therefore the writing became different. Lots of descriptions of multiple experiences. And then you start talking about how you feel.
TV Every song you hear on the radio is about how somebody feels. (laughter)
TW But you take such a circuitous route in doing it. There are other voices in the songs.
TV A social worker in the 1940s came across this revelation that there’s absolutely no behavior that isn’t imbued with some kind of emotion. Even if you’re sitting and drinking a glass of water. Whether your behavior reveals it or not is another thing.
TW There’s a way in which emotions can overcome something, emotionally over-the-top. It’s letting things fly.
TV I think specifics and details reveal more. To use your term, “letting it fly,” is when you say, “The girl named Joan scratched her knee and her hand was cold.” It brings up a whole set of variables. If you say something like, “The cow stood in the blue meadow, and the sailor got off the boat drunk …”
TW There are no variables to the image; there’s just no place to go with it. Your music is not direct in that the narrative goes around. It’s really a journey, an experience.
TV I think it has to do with being inarticulate. (laughter) I’m serious.
TW Well, that’s a very humble thing to say.
TV But it’s true. I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with it.
TW So you got back together after fourteen years, and it’s just like you never left? You just sat down and you couldn’t wait …
BF Total chemistry all the way. (laughter) Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t. There’s a chemical bond and a mechanical bond. The molecules don’t really combine to form a new chemical. You throw them in, you shake them up, and they’re together for a bit, and then you wait a little while and then they separate again.
TV Convulsion potion.
TW What is the single going to be, by the way?
TV They’re puffing out “Mr. Lee.” What do you get from hearing the song?
TW I love the guitar part. But I thought of William Lee.
TV That’s what everyone thinks. Mr. Lee is a name often used for the Chinaman who helps the spies out when they come to town, or most Chinese laundries.
TW I get that. Lines like, “The dog is taming red.”
Fred Smith It’s an embarrassed dog.
BF Either that or a communist.
TW “Tell him the code is broken and the dog is turning red?”
TV “He’ll know the code is broken, tell him the dog is turning red.”
TW This is out there. I don’t hear lyrics like that.
TV People say it every day.
TW It’s really covert.
Marquee Moon seems like a record of the night. Adventure seems like twilight. This new record sounds like bright daylight, and the sun has soaked everything. Adventure sounds great at six o’clock at night when the sun’s going down, and you’ve had a few stiff drinks, just looking out the window—The Fire, and The Dream’s Dream. This is not first take stuff; things are uncovered as you listen to it over time. I like it to retain its mystery. On the other hand, when I want to get away from the cerebral, I put on blues like Sun House, Skip James, or Robert Johnson. They play on the bottom. But when I want to go to the top, I put on Adventure.
BF Robert Johnson has a lot of mystic images.
TV There’s a lot of Bible stuff in there.
BF I used to think there was a lot of psychotic stuff there, “Hell hound on my trail.”
TW He seemed psychotic, I think—he treated women pretty bad.
There seems to be a distinct difference in the way you guys record, and play live. There’s enough leeway in the songs for improvisation on stage.
TV We improvise a lot. We did some shows in Europe a couple of weeks ago, and already the songs were getting ten minutes long.
TW All right! I love that. What’s the longest one you do?
TV 1880 is up to 12 minutes, at least.
BF We ended a show in France—and still weren’t done when we had to quit.
FS They had this firework show with a parade, and 50-foot pink balloon monsters.
Tod Wizon is a painter and contributing editor in music to BOMB.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.