This is a continuation of the interview that Alan Benjamin conducted for MWE3.com. Please click here to read the first part of the interview, along with a review of Lyle’s amazing new album, Uncommon Measures.
Alan Benjamin: Hi Lyle. Great seeing you again. If it’s OK, I’d like to start this second part of our interview with a question that is aligned with something that [my band mate in Advent] Mark wanted to ask.
How do you approach writing and arranging your albums? And, to add Mark’s specific question: What triggers your headspace when composing in different styles? Is it an emotion, a mood, a philosophical idea, or a memory? Or do you just start with a blank slate and see what comes out?
Lyle Workman: When it comes to my music, it’s a blank slate. Of course, if I’m working on movies or TV, it’s the exact opposite—there are characters in the story and there’s a lot more to inform me. But when I’m working on my own music, I like the idea of letting my imagination run free and I feel that the muse is more intelligent somehow—or just has a better way of guiding me to the good stuff (rather than if my brain tries to will things to happen).
AB: Do you normally work sequentially, starting at the beginning of an idea and work from there?
LW: Yeah. It could be four chords or just a progression (a sequence of chords). That’s generally where it starts and then it’s just a “building blocks” scenario, building the foundation and then frame, walls—all that stuff. I never have a complete vision of what it’s supposed to be. Certainly, on the longer pieces where one section ends and goes into something else, I often end up in areas that surprise even me—I wouldn’t have come up with section D had I not gone from A-B-C to get there.
AB: Do you often sit down just to write your own material or do you happen to come across the building blocks you talked about spontaneously while playing in any context?
LW: It’s all spontaneous, all just off-the-cuff, just through improvisational playing—just moving my fingers around on my guitar or the keyboard until something comes up. The only thing I knew I wanted to do [for this album] was have orchestra, so some things I started with that particular sensibility in mind.
AB: I know that we’d already discussed the beautiful album closer, “Our Friendship,” written by John Ashton Thomas, though I’m also curious to know how his compositional contribution arose.
LW: He asked if he could submit a piece of music—he wanted to write something and asked—and I said, “I’d love it.” That was the only discussion. Then he did a mock-up, including a keyboard version (with a keyboard sample of a guitar playing the main line). That was it. I think we went back and forth a little bit—I wanted the ending to be a little bit different, but it was the perfect end piece to the record. It was a perfect thing for him to write in light of everything that had been written. It just had its own exact place.
And, you know, I made the melody my own. Of course, there were improvisational moments—I took two miniature solos within it and that’s just improvisational stuff—but the main melody and everything else was all him.
AB: I love the guitar tone of your melody on this piece, in particular, which sort of emits kind of a Brian May vibe. I know we’d already discussed your having gone back and forth between regular and slide playing on this melody, which is quite effective.
LW: Yeah. Just whatever I’m hearing. I’m not out playing this music live, so I give myself the leeway of doing whatever I wanted with the technical aspect of recording so that it just sounds the best. I’m not considering, “Well, if I played this live, how would I do it?” Although, Jeff Beck famously did this kind of thing with “Nadia,” where he’s going from slide to non-slide while playing the song—which is an amazing piece of music as you know.
AB: For sure. May I ask how you came up with that beautiful tone [for the guitar melody on “Our Friendship”]?
AB: Very neat, thanks. I’d also like to throw in two more questions from Mark on a somewhat related topic:
1. Your guitar tone is really beautiful. How has your pedal board changed (if at all) since the one shown on YouTube by L.A. Sound Design in 2013?
2. What pedals have remained consistent with your sound over the years (through Rundgren, Jellyfish, Sting, etc.)?
AB: How do you go about naming your tracks?
LW: In some ways, that’s the hardest part of the process. If they’re instrumental pieces I am starting from a blank slate—there’s no imagery to inform me. And certainly in the case of a song that’s nine or 10 minutes long, it can be difficult. For me, the process is sitting still, listening, and asking, “What is it visually? What’s it saying emotionally?” I knock around these questions until something sticks that properly represents the piece.
AB: I think the market for instrumental music has changed a bit recently and, in my mind, Snarky Puppy was the band that broke fusion and instrumental music into the mainstream in a way the genres never really enjoyed previously—even back in its heyday of the ’70s. Hopefully this helps to widen and deepen the market for music like the great material you’re making, which is a different kind of fusion. What do you think?
LW: I think that’s right. I think they [Snarky Puppy] are also “of the time.” The videos with their audience wearing headphones—it’s an intimate invitation to the music and brilliant twist on audience presentation. The whole production is very cool, and looks and sounds great. These are fine musicians and also include great guests. It’s music played by serious musicians, but always playful, spirited, and fun.
AB: I think they won some Grammys too.
LW: They sure have.
AB: This sort of brings fusion from being the ugly stepchild of prog to something actually marketable, at least from the standpoint of popularity.
On a different topic, who are some of your favorite composers (in any genre or era)?
LW: Starting with the Beatles, certainly. In classical, Ravel and Debussy—I like that era and the sense of early jazz in classical music. Holst’s The Planets, I think, is a masterpiece—you can hear that DNA in film scores to this day.
Stravinsky with his crazy use of time and meter. I like things that are sort of beautifully dissonant—you know, dissonant in just the right way—and he definitely fulfills that.
AB: What about more modern composers?
LW: John Williams, in terms of film music, is as good as it gets. He’s just a great thematic master—he writes the best and most memorable themes. You know, they’re hits. They’re hooks. And then he can do a score like The Adventures of Tintin which is nothing like Star Wars but always with such skill in the arranging—nothing is superfluous. I’ve talked a lot with my orchestrator about him. Every part has a purpose.
I really like Alexandre Desplat. I think he’s a brilliant film composer, particularly when he does ethnic-based composing like the music he’s done for Wes Anderson movies like Fantastic Mr. Fox, Isle of Dogs, and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Man, those scores are so good and really distinctive. He utilizes ethnic instruments in a way that’s legit and very interesting.
Moving away from film composers, John McLaughlin was another big one for me. I liked his writing a lot. The material is beautiful. The two orchestral records he made were influential and I think I already mentioned my tip-of-the-hat on Uncommon Measures. Narada Michael Walden is also a great writer—the stuff he wrote on Jeff Beck’s Wired in particular. (That’s a great record and that was a big one for me.)
Burt Bacharach is huge and incredible. Beautiful, beautiful writing. I did a thing for Hal David’s 90th birthday party and there was a show—I was hired to be in the backup band—and there were several artists that had done Bacharach/David songs in their career. (We backed up B. J. Thomas to “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” as an example.) Then some other people came and sang Burt Bacharach/Hal David songs—like Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson.
Then we did “This Guy’s in Love With You” with Herb Alpert and, oh my gosh, I forgot how great a song that was—and we did it with him playing the trumpet. I have to say we played that song and my eyes started to water. I’m looking at the chart and it was starting to get a little blurry. But what a beautiful song that is. You know, his whole way of working with bars of two. (He’s the “bar of two” guy.) That’s all based on melody. Listen to “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” and there are bars of two just popping in here and there.
AB: I never noticed that.
LW: Check it out. Because it’s just following the cadence of the melody.
Of course, Jimmy Webb is another big one. I think “Wichita Lineman” is one of the best songs ever written.
AB: Do you have any guitarists that you particularly like?
LW: Oh gosh, I think I already covered some of the old standbys, but let’s see…. John McLaughlin, Steve Morse … Jimi Hendrix was the main guy for me for a long time. Jan Akkerman from Focus was huge.
AB: I love Jan Akkerman.
LW: Oh, great. That Live at the Rainbow, my gosh. I had that record when I was in high school and devoured it—and learned licks from it—and when I found out that they actually filmed that concert….
I found this out in the ’90s, before it was common knowledge. I was on tour with Frank Black in Holland and it’s kind of crazy how this happened. We were in Holland and playing a show. I went up to the guy who was running the sound and said, “Hi. I’m a huge fan of Focus.” And his eyes lit up. He goes, “Really?” I said, “Yeah, I just love Focus.” He answered, “Guess what? I’m doing a documentary on them. I have all this footage.” I told him, “Yeah, I heard a rumor that Live at the Rainbow is a live concert with video footage.” He replied “I have it all. I have that whole concert.”
He made a VHS tape and sent it to me when I got back. Of course, I was inviting all my fusion and prog friends over and we would watch it and just geek out because it was not available anywhere. Now you can see it on YouTube. But to see his hands play those licks that I’d studied and, God, he was just playing at the top of his game on that record.
AB: Do you happen to have any favorite concerts of those you attended?
LW: Seeing the A Trick of the Tail tour when I was 14 (or something like that) was pretty insane. That was monumental. I remember that moment on … was it “Cinema Show”? [Lyle sings the melody.]
AB: Yes, I think it is. [It was.]
LW: So they go to that melody and then it repeats—and then Michael Rutherford steps on the bass pedal.
But the dynamic live was way bigger than it was on the record and I just remember, “Whoa!” He stepped on that pedal and my eyes watered and the hairs on my arms and neck just stood up. That was a great show.
I saw The Who with Keith Moon. That was pretty insane. I saw McLaughlin a couple of times. I saw him with the One Truth band twice and that was great seeing him live. Those were great concerts.
Seeing Jeff Beck every time was just like watching a magician play. Those were amazing shows. I saw the There and Back tour, which was exciting, and then saw him several times after that.
Gosh, so many great concerts…. Peter Gabriel was huge. He’s my favorite. Seeing him throughout the years has been unbelievable. Of course, the band Yes when I was a kid.
AB: Did you ever see Gentle Giant by any chance?
LW: Yes, as an opener. That was cool.
AB: On a related note, Mark’s last question is asking about your favorite Gentle Giant song.
LW: You know, I never really got into them that much. I don’t know why, because I liked what I heard. Maybe just because my plate was full with other groups I was listening to. I wish I had a better answer for that.
AB: That’s OK. It’s interesting—everyone’s got a different path.
LW: Yeah, exactly. We come from a time when you could afford to not like a band, or not even pay attention to them, because there was such a windfall of great music.
AB: For sure. I think there’s really a lot of great music now too. The problem is that there’s so much music out there that it’s hard to find the best of it these days.
LW: Yeah. It’s like a lot of these guys aren’t super-famous because they’re doing it on their own accord or there’s no big record company support. I found out about all these bands, back in the day, because they were on the radio. I found out about Focus because “Hocus Pocus” was on the radio—it was a top-40 hit. Yes, obviously, was on the radio with “Roundabout.” Genesis had a minor hit with something off of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, though I can’t remember which tune for sure. You know, this was stuff on the radio and the cream really rose to the top.
AB: What’s next on your agenda?
LW: Just finishing a couple of TV shows. After that, there are talks about a movie, but more toward the end of the year. Then I’ve got a bunch more Facebook material that I have to finish—I’ll be recording with Tim Lefebvre and Matt Chamberlain. I’m really enjoying the stuff I’m writing for Facebook and there’s a good amount more that I need to write.
AB: I hope you’ll be posting updates on your Facebook page, like you had been.
LW: Yeah, I’ll do that. I’ll put out more releases and announce that those are out (there) and just kind of keep it going. I’m sure I’ll start another record at some point too.
AB: It’s been a lot of fun. Thanks so much.
LW: It’s been great speaking with you, Alan.