2004: Interview by Stephen Meyer

Al on stage in 2003

"I LIKE Apple's iTunes Store. It has changed my life as a fan. Every Tuesday I review the new releases and download EXACTLY the tracks I like, no filler. I don't have to build any new shelves - just buy another hard drive AND I don't have to leave my house. I am enjoying great new music I would NEVER have heard before in a record store or on the radio or MTV. And I've cut my purchasing costs by 60%. Is this a beautiful country or what?" - Al Kooper

This week, DISC&DAT catches up with and has a brief conversation with a legendary artist, producer, writer, and outspoken industry critic, Al Kooper.

Q. First off, I'm sure many readers would like to know what you've been up to recently...what have you been doing?

AK: I've been 'DJ'ing a bit on 'Radio Caroline' in the UK and I've been getting my first solo album since 1975's 'Act Like Nothing's Wrong' assembled for release in the spring of '05. I've also been assembling a Mike Bloomfield box set for SONY, which with it's enormity of detail and legalities, should see the light in '06. I remixed 'Super Session' and 'Child is Father To The Man' (the first Blood, Sweat & Tears album) in 5.1 SACD Surround Sound in 2003, but haven't heard a peep about it's release from SONY. They came out amazing by the way...now if they just come out at all! I've been performing live as much as possible and will continue to do so until my dying day. I've been recording me reading my out of print autobiography (Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards) in hopes of releasing an audiobook in '05 so they can stop selling old print copies on Ebay for $100.

Q. Do you think the industry will ever support SACD (Super Audio CD) 5.1 as "the next audio experience"...having worked with it, is the difference really dramatic? Would people listening on iPods and other digital players be able to hear a difference?

AK: The two albums I remixed last year were my first in 5.1. It was an amazing experience. I had sage advice from my good friend, engineer Steve Rosenthal, and the assistance of the staff of the SACD organization. After that mixing, I truly believe in the validity of 5.1. You need six sound sources (speakers) and current headphones won't do that job. Prior to my mixing experience, I had not enjoyed the then-current spate of 5.1 releases. For the most part they were too conservatively mixed and there was no adventure or daring use of the space provided. They just sounded like stereo mixes on HDTV. I went berserk on the CHILD IS FATHER TO THE MAN album. Guitars flying over your head like helicopters in 'APOCALYPSE NOW.' A string section divided into four sections filling the entire room, stuff like that. Hell, stereo only gives you a 180 degree playing field while 5.1 gives you 360 degrees plus height. If you use that space propitiously, one can hear the little nuances of each instrument gratuitously. As a fan, I wanna' hear the envelope being pushed on 5.1 mixes, so that is what I did. There are all kinds of problems with getting the new standard out to the audience, however. Homey don't play that stuff though, so I have to just sit around and wait and see if they (SONY) release my work and then see if anyone knows its been released. For me, the usual.

Q. With all the great stuff in your book, I'm surprised that some radio station or syndication company hasn't thought of making you a guest DJ here...there's so many great stories you could tell. Have those possibilities ever been brought to you?

AK: Recently my dear friend, Andrew Loog Oldham (the Rolling Stones original producer/manager), started DJing on Sirius. He's got quite a few stories to tell himself! By the way his second book, '2 Stoned,' an autobiography of the Stones years, is bloody amazing. As a writer, he's one of my heroes. Anyhow, he asked Sirius if they'd have a whack with me, but there is a playlist involved and my favorite thing is playing music I perceive people missed that they would enjoy. A playlist is too close-ended for me to have fun, so I'm afraid I just let it go. Otherwise, not a peep from radio except for 'Radio Caroline' which I certainly support spiritually.

Q. Tell us about 'Radio Caroline'...what is it all about, and how did you get involved with it?

AK: Rob Leighton, one of their DJs, emailed me and asked if I wanted to have a blow. We decided a one hour trial show was appropriate so I cut "Obscuritiva One" in my home studio and sent it along to him. They aired it a week ago and are deciding if they can put it into their 2005 schedule. 'Radio Caroline' in case you don't know, was the originator of 'Pirate Radio' 40 years ago. They put a functioning radio station on a boat, floated it offshore while broadcasting, and did not have to adhere to any of Britain's broadcasting laws because technically (and legally) they weren't in Britain. It caught on because of no commercials and adventurous programming and forty years later it's still afloat. God bless 'em!

Q. Having read BACKSTAGE PASSES & BACKSTABBING BASTARDS, I found it to be one of the most enjoyable books ever about rock and roll in the '60's and the music business...it's a great read. What books have you read about the business or other artists that you liked? Are you looking forward to Dylan's upcoming autobiography?

AK: Well, I've already mentioned Andrew Loog Oldham's book already. What a wonderful writer with an amazing tale to tell. We were born within days of each other and have an organic understanding about the vagaries of the mess we're in. A good lad and a good read. Dave Barry's books make me laugh out loud. I've seen some of Bob's book and its pretty unexpected. Should be fun.

Q. The music industry is in a state of transition today unlike any other in its history and it faces many problems but many artists don't think the Internet and downloading is the primary reason...what are your thoughts about some of the other problems today?

AK: Same as it ever was in my opinion ...greedy, over-staffed major labels with a split of 90-10 in favor of the record companies. The artists get reamed and the companies complain about how bad the business is. If you took an average record deal and ran it through the courts without politics, it would be deemed unconscionable and thrown out. Don't get me started.

Q: One of the changes at labels is there are no longer artist development departments, why do you think that happened?

AK: ...They didn't need any onsite drugstores anymore??? (Grinning)

Q. As an artist, do you agree with Jeff Tweedy (Wilco's lead singer/songwriter) that the people downloading online "are not the enemy"?

AK: I don't sell as many records as Jeff Tweedy or get as much money for performing live as he does, so P2P (peer-to-peer) does take food out of my mouth. Apple's iTunes at least makes the effort to pay me before the record company grabs it out of my hand. I LIKE iTunes. It has changed my life as a fan. Every Tuesday I review the new releases and download EXACTLY the tracks I like, no filler. I don't have to build any new shelves - just buy another hard drive AND I don't have to leave my house. I am enjoying great new music I would NEVER have heard before in a record store or on the radio or MTV. And I've cut my purchasing costs by 60%. Is this a beautiful country or what?

Q. Rock veterans Peter Gabriel and Brian Eno are launching a provocative new musicians' alliance that would cut against the industry grain by letting artists sell their music online instead of only through record labels. They say that with the Internet transforming how people buy and listen to songs, musicians need to act now to claim digital music's future. Do you see the same potential for artists?

AK: Oh, absolutely. It's a no brainer. No advertising, manufacturing or marketing costs. No vapid videos. Who needs the record companies? But first the CD must die a commercial death in the same fashion the LP did. That is, it will still be manufactured and sold, but the download will move into first place. A hierarchy shift, as it were. Then the cost of getting the media out there will be slashed almost entirely, negating the need for most record companies. Especially ones that keep 90% for themselves.

Q. Do you see any downside for artists with all the technology in place and being developed?

AK: Yeah, the technology allows one person to make a whole record single-handedly. There are high-rated engineers today who have never miked a viola or a French horn. Solo acts who have never recorded with a roomful of real musicians. That's a big mofo downside in my humble opinion.

Q. The technology available today also allows artists to make albums that sound pretty good in home studios for a mere fraction of what it used to cost years ago...that's an upside isn't it?

AK: Oh sure - but it's also a possible destruction of camaraderie and interaction and that has been an integral part of making great music historically speaking.

Q. With so much emphasis on marketing these days in the business and "the look" in videos, it's always been my belief that nothing fosters an artist's long-term career as much as relentless touring behind every release. What are your thoughts about that?

AK: Relentless by virtue of its meaning transcends "behind every release." Bands like Phish and Wilco didn't wait specifically for CDs to be released. They went out and played everywhere all the time because they loved to play and it supported them as a band, something record companies don't like to do. Relentless touring for an up and coming band is like a fraternity hazing. Ya' gotta do it if ya' wanna join the organization. The Blues Project had their share of station wagons and seedy motels, believe me. It's a ritual. If you don't do it you're not a true rock'n'roller. It's for the young ' uns, though. At age 60. the only thing I do relentlessly is sit at the computer or complain. (Laughing)

Q. Who are your biggest musical influences ?

AK: Ray Charles, Horace Silver, Hank Crawford, James Burton, Scotty Moore, Cliff Gallup, Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Joey DeFrancesco, Elvis, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Timi Yuro, Lorraine Ellison, Mavis Staples, Otis Spann, Muddy Waters, BB King, Rev. Claude Jeter, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Al Green, Twinkie Clark, Tracy Nelson, Ed King, Bill Spooner, Sam Bush, Charlie Calello, Burt Bachrach and Jimmy Vivino......whew !!!!!!!!!

Q. You've played with so many rock icons like Dylan, the Stones, The Who, Hendrix, Simon & Garfunkel...the list goes on and on. Was there anyone you really wanted to work to work with and never got the chance to back in the "glory days" ?

AK: Well, I prayed Ray Charles would record "I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know" to no avail. I still wish I could sit in a room with Scotty Moore, Bill Black, DJ Fontana, Elvis and Sam Phillips. That would have been quite unforgettable

Q. What artists are out there today that you like...and what artists would you like to work with today if given the opportunity?

AK: I'd love to work in a studio with Hella, Ollabelle, Unbunny, Keb Mo, Guster, Deerhoof, Mario Winans, Madeleine Peyroux, Paul Thorn, and quite a few others. I'd like to work with Britney Spears....but not in a studio. I'd like to work with Courtney Love....in therapy.
I'd like to work with Madonna..... in temple. (Laughs)

Q. What albums would be in your "must have" stack...you know, your "desert island list" ?

AK: The Beach Boy's 'Pet Sounds,' 'Focus' by Stan Getz and Eddie Sauter, 'More Soul' by Hank Crawford, The Bulgaraian Womens Choir directed by Phillip Koutev, Eddie Hinton bootlegs, That Burt Bacharach boxset, and if I was on that island I'd like a case of Snapple Diet Apple!

Q. Who have you been listening to lately?

AK: It changes every week All the good artists' new releases on the iTunes Music Store on Tuesdays. My favorite song this month is "Flaw" by Todd Rundgren.

Q. Billy Joel said, "Videos destroyed the vitality of rock 'n' roll. Before that, music said, 'Listen to me.' Now it says, 'Look at me." With artists like Norah Jones, Alicia Keys, Dave Matthews, John Mayer breaking through and reaching large audiences, do you think there's a possibility that at some point the music consumers will spend more time LISTENING again instead of being fed the steady diet of trend/fashion/disposable videos?

AK: Yeah. Look what happens to Billy Joel now when he turns his car radio on!!! (Laughs) Do they still show videos on MTV? I heard it was all reality shows, game shows, and award shows now.
This is a country that manufactures stuff. Burgers, teen idols, hell....even Presidents. Kids are basically raised with all that manufactured stuff shoved in their faces in their formative years. They can't escape it. It's on TV, the radio, in magazines and of course, more than ever, the newspapers. With the help of their older friends, parents and intuition, they may get to discover unmanufactured music and wouldn't that be great? But the odds are against them far as I can see. Playlists? Set 'em on fucking fire. Burn 'em off the face of the Earth. Let the MUSIC play.

Q. What advice would you give today to any new unsigned artist out there looking for guidance?

AK: Any unsigned artist today should not listen to the ravings of a sixty year old man unless of course he was trying to sign them. To tell you the truth, I quit the record biz in 1989. In the music biz we all have our windows of opportunity. Mine remained open for an amazing amount of time. But during my time I watched others bang their heads against the wall because they couldn't tell when their window had closed. So I always watched carefully to make sure I didn't overstay my welcome so I could depart with what was left of my dignity intact. In 1989, I saw and heard the window close. Some of the dreaded record companies were hiring three and four different producers to do albums and they were turning into messes. On top of that, they were taking the mixing privileges away from the producers which was a complete deal-breaker for me. I produced records because in many ways it was fun to do. In 1989, they took the fun out of it for me. I haven't really looked for work since then and because my window assumption was correct, they ain't calling out for me. After I quit, I moved to Nashville to retire until I got bored. That took seven years. I think its better to retire early, then come back and play as many gigs as you can until they literally bury you. My heroes did/do that. Muddy Waters, BB King, Luther Allison. So in a roundabout way, that is the best advice I can give anyone: a) watch for your window closing AND; b) live by my mantra "If you don't expect anything, you're never disappointed." That's gotten ME through 46 years in the music business so far.

Q. Any closing thoughts?

AK: Yeah. I want to personally be at the closings of all the major record companies, unless they start splitting the percentages 75-25 in the artists' favor, and stop manufacturing CDs and shooting extinct $250k videos which are all charged back to the artists totally. Those are the closing thoughts I have. Don't get me started again.