Interview Willy DeVille - December 2007
In mid December 2007 I received an e-mail from the editor of the German edition of Rolling Stone asking if I would be willing to re-work an interview I had conducted with Willy DeVille in April of 2006 for a special section they were planning to run on Willy for their February Edition. Willy and the Mink DeVille band were starting a mini-European tour in mid February to help promote his new CD Pistola and the article would tie in with it.
Well I wasn't about to say no to something like that, and I suggested that perhaps I should try and get in touch with Willy to bring things up to date - talk about the new CD, and anything else Willy felt like chatting about. By the time we had agreed on details it was Wednesday the 19th of December, and it turns out the world stops the Friday before Christmas so I had three days to get hold of a copy of the new CD, and set up an interview time with Willy.
So it was pretty hectic to say the least; figuring out the logistics of getting me a copy of the CD was the hardest part - seems couriers are busy at Christmas, and nobody was going to guarantee an overnight delivery between New York City and Kingston Ontario. But something happened on the final Friday that made me think no matter what, this is going to work out just fine. A DVD of a tribute to Edith Piaf showed up in the mail for me to review - a DVD that had been produced by Willy's record company no less.
Now for those who don't know, Edith is pretty special to Willy, it was because of her that he ended up in Paris in 1980 recording Le Chat Blue, and working with many of the same people she had worked with. A question I regret not asking him was what it was like for him to play at the Olympia in Paris - he recorded a live disc there - where Edith had ruled the stage for years.
Talk about synchronisity: an hour later the Fed Ex guy is knocking at my door with a copy of Pistola. Sometimes you know the stars are shining on you and this was one of those times.
Now I was under strict instructions from Willy's wife Nina - who does her best to act as the business manager for a guy who loves to play rock and roll and in his own words "I just want to focus on the art and the music right - that business stuff ..." Well Nina wanted to make sure I got Willy to talk about the disc and the tour - and in our way we did.
But Willy's focus is so wide - like all the really true creative people I've ever met, he sees everything as being interconnected. But I had promised, so after Willy and I were done with the preliminaries - how you doing etc. it was time to get down to it.
Was there anything in particular that you were trying to express overall with the new CD Pistola?
Willy: "I pretty much try to do the same thing each time out. I had some amazing teachers, older guys like Jack Nietzsche, and Dr. John who taught me about sound - and how important it is to create shades of sounds like colour. With all this sampling that's happening today there's all sorts of things you can make in the studio - but can you do it live? I want to make music that I want to buy and that I can play on stage that's note for note what's in the studio. But I also want it to grow, so that it's not always the same thing, but getting better each time.
The real secret to making an album is to know when to stop - you know that if you go back into the booth again it's going to kill the song - so you have to believe in what you've got."
It's like a painter knowing when to stop adding paint to a canvas - one more brush stroke would ruin it.
Willy: "Yeah that's it - cause like I said it's colours - you set out to look for the next colour and that becomes kind of like the search for the Holly Grail."
What about the title for this disc, Pistola?
Willy: "Well, I wanted it to sound like those old cowboy movies, ya know..."
Yeah, it reminds me of the old spaghetti Westerns, where everybody is stretched long and thin....
Willy: "Yeah that's it. Well there was one and it was called Pistolera, well Pistola is the feminine version of the word - and it's like for saying - hot as a pistol. ( He extends each syllable) Pis to la, the sound has that feel of the western, and something hot too. An exciting sound, just like what I hope the music will be for people."
What's your process when it comes to a new disc - writing the material for example?
Willy: "I'm always writing, I've got these two pads that I keep with me all the time, one's for drawing and the other's for writing things down. Sometimes it will be just a phrase that I hear that I like and want to store away to maybe pull out for later. The best time is right when I wake up and I might have had something come in the night, or I wake up with an idea and I write it down right away while it's still fresh.
You've got to constantly write though, it's like exercising the brain, if you don't do it all the time it will get soft and you'll have to start thinking about technique instead of knowing instinctively how to write. You want to be able just let the words create what you want, and not worry about the craft cause it will start to sound stilted if you do that.
But like I said it's also a matter of looking for the new sound - something that's fresh - but at the same time is still you. You've got to remember in a lot of ways rock and roll music is a lot like being in the business of creating illusions and you have to maintain that feeling of heightened reality - how real is it to pack a story into like three or four minutes when you think of it - but that's what we all do and it only works if you believe in what you're doing. It really does come down to what I said earlier about writing the songs that I want to hear."
Yeah, I get that - I try to write the stories I want to read. It sounds easy...
Willy: "Yeah it does doesn't it? (laughs) But you know I was having doubts about this one, until about the third song and then I was okay - cause really how do you ever know - it's so easy to get too close to the material that you can't have detachment- and it becomes an act of faith."
Phil Shenale produced Crow Jane Alley and other earlier stuff, what do you like about working with him as a producer?
Willy: "We first worked together on Loup Garou, and what's great about Phil is he always hears the sound I want to create, and knows how to bring out the best in me in the studio. He's not some hard ass or anything like that, yelling at you, but he keeps it together and makes it work.
Making an album is like giving birth in a lot of ways. You have this creation that you're responsible for, and it's a wonderful feeling when its done, but there's the struggle that you go through to make sure that you bring the sound to life in just the right way. That's what Phil does you know. Because he knows what I want to create - he comes up with ideas that help make the sound right.
There was this one song - it was on Backstreets Of Desire I think, where he took a Baby Grand piano - a really good one right, and took the lid off and played on the wires with drum sticks because he knew that was the way to get the sound we needed for the song. He doesn't say, this is what it has to sound like, or make it into his sound. It's all about finding the sound - or really knowing what I'm hearing inside my head almost, and helping me make it happen."
The musicians on the album, there not the folk you'll be touring with are they, but you've worked with some of them before right.
Willy: "Well, yeah - Phil of course plays keys on this one like he has for the last few. Brian Ray (Paul McCartney's guitar player) and I have worked together before on Backstreets Of Desire, and Josh Sklair was of Crow Jane Alley. The record companies make it hard though you know, I call up Phil and we try to figure out who's available and what's within the budget and all that ...the guys did great stuff and I'm really happy with how everything turned out... (NOTE from Nina DeVille: Willy would love to make an album with the Mink DeVille band but for financial reasons on Pistola it wasn't possible - it's something that's long overdue though and would make a great album because they know each other all so well)
But the whole experience, the four weeks in Los Angeles were really brutal. We were staying in this hotel where I guess everybody else staying there were going to Disneyland and Universal studios, and they all looked like they were trying so hard to have fun - especially the young kids - and it was a nightmare man. They all dressed alike in their Lacoste shirts and pants with expensive sneakers, and they'd been told this what fun was supposed to be so they were doing their best.
Now this is, sort of spooky, and I don't set much by it, but I gotta wonder... You know on the last album Crow Jane Alley I wrote that song about Muddy Waters gonna rise out of the Mississippi Mud and then boom Katrina happens, and the damn river doesn't just rise up. This time I've got that line in, "You Got The World In Your Hands": "Somebody set the hills on fire" right - and the next thing you know the hills around L.A. are up in flames...
I don't know, four weeks in LA - I had to promise Nina we wouldn't do the next one out there - There was this one night I couldn't sleep so I climbed up onto the roof to have a smoke and there was this young Scottish kid up there (does a really good Scottish accent) who say's "I couldn't sleep - I was having nightmares" and I was thinking yeah I know what you mean. I ask the guys (the musicians he recorded with) how they can live out there all the time, and they said by keeping busy. I don't know..."
(I can almost hear and see him shudder through the phone line and quickly jumped in with another question about Pistola. Nobody needs to get lost in nightmares about Los Angeles.)
On Pistola you did a bunch of different styles of music - country/folk to Native American - even one reggae tinged number. Were you deliberate in your choices of style or did it just sort of happen.
Willy: "It's a little bit of both right, you know. The arrangement has to fit the song, so the text and the music together have to be believable. "Been There Done That" is really more New Orleans then reggae - the base line is probably what made you think of it as reggae - but you know what Marley said - it was from listening to music out of New Orleans on bad radios that gave them reggae, cause all they heard was the off beat....Anyway it's the text that's I always focus on - sort of like the way Leonard Cohen or Jacques Brel work, and then the music develops around that."
That's funny you mention Brel, because I've thought of you in terms of him before...
Willy: "Yeah? Well you know I was thinking of recording (sing the opening bars of "Amsterdam") I love that stuff...I remember the first time I went over to Europe, for Le Chat Blue, and everybody being so surprised that I really dug Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel...but it's great music you know."
I'd like to talk about some the songs on the album. Tell me a little bit about any particular inspiration, meaning, or intent that you might have had. - Lets start with the first one "So Sir Real".
Willy: "I just wanted to write a really good rock and roll song with a great guitar line and a good lyric... but you know the world has become pretty scary, I don't remember it being this bad twenty or even ten years ago, and so that's part of it - it gets to the point where it's harder and harder to believe that this stuff is going on - but of course it is."
"Been There Done That" (track two) - is just what it says, you know. I was having a conversation with Monk Boudreau and he was saying something about something, and I said now why in hell would I do that man, I've Been There Done That - and it stuck in my head. The rhythm developed out of that you know. Like I said it's much more New Orleans than reggae - the horns are very New Orleans."
The fourth song, "Louise", is the only one on the album you didn't write - it sounded familiar, but I couldn't place it.
Willy: "It was written by Paul Seibel, he put out two albums, and I'm sure you could get them if you wanted; one was Jack-Knife Gypsy and the other was Woodsmoke & Oranges. I wasn't even sure he was alive, but Nina looked him up on the computer and we found him. So I called him up and said "hey I've recorded one of your songs" and he wanted to know which one and asked if I had the lyric and could he hear it. So I said yeah and played it for him - this was through the telephone you know so I told him not to expect much - but he really liked what I had done.
I told him he should come on up and I'd love to play some music with him, and he said he couldn't any more - that the business had ripped the heart out of him. It's a shame you know, because I think he's just as good if not better than Dylan when it comes to lyrics."
The Band Played On"(track five) is obviously about New Orleans....
Willy: "Yeah, that's right. The horns at the beginning are playing a funeral march. It was awful watching that you know. I had been down in the South West going through some personal stuff and I got back home to see this on the television - man it was devastating - I lived there thirty years - it felt horrible watching the streets where I used to hang out under water. So yeah this was my tribute to New Orleans.
(At this point we got into a brief conversation about New Orleans and the current situation down there. The majority of the people who were displaced by the Hurricane have still not been allowed to or are able to move home. The governments are dragging their feet on rebuilding all the housing and infrastructure - it's cheaper to keep the people in the displacement camps than it is to rebuild public housing which doesn't make big money for developers.
According to Naomi Klein's (author of No Logo) latest book Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism they have no intention of rebuilding any of the poorer neighbourhoods where many of the musicians lived and performed - the plans for redevelopment include luxury condominiums, expensive hotels, and convention centres. One of the first steps they took in order to discourage people from returning was the privatization of public schools. There used to be 104 public schools servicing the area in and around New Orleans - there are now only four - the rest have all been issued with private charters.
As I told Willy this he was repeating it to Nina and she knew about most of it already - I heard her say in the background "Make you sure you mention about Brad Pitt using his own money to try and rebuild homes for people".
I know that the two women who sing back up for Willy in the Mink DeVille band, Lisa West, and Doreen Carter, are both from New Orleans so I asked Willy about them. He said that they've moved back there, but there's no work at all and that the tour is a blessing for them. Organizations like the Jazz Foundation of America are trying to raise money to replace instruments for people, and get them jobs playing in schools - but that's only short term - the real disaster in New Orleans is still going on as thousands of people are still living in refugee camps (nearly all of them black by the way) and may never see their homes again.
It took Willy and I a couple of minutes to find the thread of our conversation after that - but we found our way back - he was obviously shaken up - and if you listen to this song you can hear how much he loves his New Orleans - and the heart and soul have been ripped out of it -never to be returned it seems)
"Stars That Speak" (track eight on the disc) made me think about an artist looking back on what he'd done over the years, and realizing his accomplishments.
Willy: Yeah that's what I was trying to get across. I wrote that back in 1980 - I was in Paris, and I wanted to experiment with the idea of recitation - you know sort of reading poetry over music. So I had the idea of the artist looking back at his work and wondering where the time has gone. At the time there was also the very romantic idea about being in Paris and writing poetry, but there's also something about being there that is inspiring and I was trying to tap into that as well.
Phil (producer Phil Shenale) asked me this time what other material I might have floating around, and there was this and a couple of others. He'd been wanting to put this on an album for a while, but I kept putting him off. This time he said Willy, your voice sounds just right for it -lets keep put it in. Being in Paris when I wrote it there's the whole romantic thing about "being in Paris", and like I said earlier about admiring what Leonard Cohen and Jacques Brel do with lyrics and sound, I wanted to make the attempt.
The final cut on the disc, "Mountains Of Manhattan", tell me about that, but first who is playing the flute.
Willy: I was, it's a Native Cedar flute you know (Me: Yeah I recognized it - I have a friend who makes them ) Oh okay so you know what there like. While I gave Phil a whole bunch to work with and he used it with the voice. This was another recitation piece, and I guess it's about acknowledging who you are.
When I was kid we were lower middle class right, and we were taught to hide who we were and nobody talked about our heritage. It's only been recently that I've found out about the Iroquois blood in our family - so there's that to it as well. But there's the power and the mystery of the spoken word that I love in it as well. I did a little of it on Crow Jane Alley on "In A World Gone Wrong", but "Mountains" and "Stars That Speak" have much more emphasis on it - and I think they worked out.
I thought they were two of the most powerful pieces on the disc - you've got a great voice for recitation.
Pistola is being released in Europe on February 4th/2008 and you're going to be selling copies of it direct from your web site (Willy DeVille.com) Are there any plans for distribution in North America?
Willy: "Just hold a second let me check with Nina on this - she keeps track of that stuff (In the background I hear Nina: "We've held on to the North American rights because we want to try and get our own distribution deal over here") Did you hear that?... yeah well you know they only pressed 500 hundred copies of the last one (Crow Jane Alley) for North America and we don't want that again. So we're looking for a distributor over here for the disc.
This business hasn't changed much, too many guys didn't get paid for the music they did - or they got shafted out of their rights. Deaf guys who can't hear a note but will know a hit when they see it, and blind guys who can't see an inch in front of their faces, but know exactly how much money is in the roll in their pocket so they can reach in and peel off a hundred to some poor sap so he can go out and entertain some girl, and at the end of the day not only is his heart broken cause the girl only wanted him because he was famous - he ain't got a cent to his name because that hundred bucks was his rights.
Now that's not my situation or anything, but I have to wonder about the music business. It's just like everybody wants to be a star, but doesn't really care what they put out as long as it makes money. Nobody wants to be the poet anymore, because there ain't any money in it."
Talking about changes - you've been doing this since the early seventies, did you see yourself back then still doing this - and have you changed your approach at all to the music.
Willy: "I still love the music, and I still like to tour, there's nothing that beats that connection you make with an audience when the music is right and they're digging it you know. I mean, I really am pretty lucky you know - I'm still doing what I love to do and it still makes me happy, and I guess there aren't too many people in the world who can say that are there?
I'm really still doing what I've always been doing, keep trying to apply the things that I've learned and find different ways to create the sound that I'm after - it's still going to be my sound, because that's who I am - but there's always a new angle to take on something or a fresh approach. The main thing is though that I love the music."
Obviously the new album and the upcoming tour are a priority right now, but have you given any though about further down the road.
Willy: "All the stuff that's been going down in with New Orleans makes me want to put together a Victory Mixture ll type album - as a tribute to the music and the people. Get Dr. John, Alan Toussaint, Eddie Bo, and any of the others available and make another recording of that great music - maybe even do another tour.
I'd also like to do some movie soundtracks, acting - heck there's a lot of stuff I'd like to do. But so much of it requires doing business and I'm just not cut out for it. The art is hard enough sometimes as it is. I've been phoning some agents and things and everybody sounds surprised that I'm still alive. That was Johnny Thunders and one of the Ramones who died not me.
But like you said the immediate future is busy - we're off to Sweden for a birthday party - then a week of press tours in advance of the tour in February - then back here to rehearse with the band. Then it's the tour...."
Well you know, I think that's it - I should let you get back to your day. Thanks again for taking the time Willy ... it was great to talk to you again.
Willy: "Yeah you too, take care."
To be honest - I made those last two sentences up - we were just wrapping up and Willy's phone died - he said to me just before it went - you been hearing those beeps? If we get cut off it's because the phone's battery is gone - and then the line went dead. I gave it a few minutes and phoned back and left him a message saying thanks, I had all I needed, and wished them both a Merry Christmas and good luck.
What struck me most about this conversation, is how much the music still excites him and how passionate he still is about what he does. I know he's been through his share of ups and downs in life - and yet here he is, after more then forty years of playing music and dealing with the bullshit of the business, still loving and caring deeply about the music.