Interview with Alan Parsons by Vera on April 2010, 2nd As young guy he started to work at Abbey Road Studios, serving tea for the Beatles during their second last album recordings. A few years later he was upgraded to peerless sound engineer. He was the man behind the knobs for Pink Floyd’s mega-selling album ‘The Dark Side Of The Moon’. His list of classic sound creations is endless, including Paul McCartney, The Hollies, Pilot, Al Stewart and so on. With Eric Woolfson he created his own Alan Parsons Project, releasing world-wide over million selling albums as ‘Tales Of Mystery And Imagination’, ‘Eve’, The Turn Of A Friendly Card’, ‘Gaudi’ and ‘Eye In The Sky’ to name just a few. But this man is still touring and working with music! Recently we enjoyed the DVD ‘Eye 2 Eye’ with the reflection of a 2004 gig in Spain. The hunting began to have this icon on the phone…
Alan Parsons lives with his wife in Santa Barbara, California nowadays. I speak to him in the morning of a cold spring day, but temperatures in California are much more gentle around this time of the year. When I called him, Lisa went looking for her husband and a few minutes later I hear a warm, debonair voice on the other side of the line. The Master of the Art and Science of Sound Recording just got back from a tour in several countries. ‘The most recent tour we have been to Israel. We have never been there, it was our first time. Then we went to Prague, also our first time. Next was Warsaw for the second time, again a first visit to Bratislava and then Moscow and St. Petersburg for the second time. It was an interesting tour because it included some places we had never played before.’ He’s still got the fire burning!
Another refreshing item might have been that the live band included some new members. Alan confirms: ‘Indeed, after many years of touring with a mainly New York based band, their schedule wasn’t fitting with mine for 2010. Singer PJ Olsson and Manny Focarazzo (keyboards, vocals) were still there during this tour, but the other guys you can see on the DVD could not make it. We recruited new guys like drummer Danny Thompson, bass player Guy Erez and guitarist Alastair Greene. We also offered a fairly new set list, including ‘The Turn Of A Friendly Card’ and a new song.’
The DVD ‘Eye 2 Eye’ came as a surprise to us and it shows a gig in Madrid recorded in 2004. We asked Alan why it took so long before it was released and why he had chosen this particular gig. ‘Really, we’d never had a live video before. We have had a live CD back in 1995 I think, but never with pictures. We have been touring with this band for almost seven or eight years. This was the only show that was filmed; it was a TV show in 2004 in Madrid. Initially we thought about selling it on our website, like we did before. But when we got interest from Frontiers, we decided to do some work on it and re-edit it and do some post-production work on it. It came out great.’ That’s something we agree on.
The DVD is released by Italian label Frontiers. Does it mean we can expect some new work pretty soon? Alan hesitates, but there happens to be some good news. ‘I am giving consideration of doing some new recordings soon, but I have actually just recorded one song ‘All Our Yesterdays’ which will be released on line pretty soon. It is part of an educational documentary program that I have been working on for two years. It is called ‘The Art and Science of Sound Recording’. If you go to www.artandscienceofsound.com
you can read everything about it. But essentially it is an extensive look at recording, from my perspective and from the perspective of a number of other people who do my job. It is a full-blown project; it is already partly released on line and it will hopefully be released as 3DVD set in May. There is one song, called ‘All Our Yesterdays’ and it is recorded especially for that program, but it will be a digital release only as a song on line and one day if I do some more recordings it will be on the next album as well. We have played it live during this last tour too. During the summer there will be some more shows and being in the studio is difficult when you are focused on live gigs, so it will take a while before the new album.’ Alan has a studio in the US now. ‘I have a small studio in my house that makes me capable of making the record here. These days you can make a studio with two microphones and a laptop.’ (laughs)
Of course Alan Parsons was at the cradle of modern recording facilities. But we wondered what he thinks of all the contemporary digital recordings and home efforts. ‘Well, I think the recording technology is great, but the reproduction technology is not great. We are in a time and phase in recording technology when it really is possible to record with a laptop en get pretty good sound quality, but I mean… this digital recording technology is so young! It started in the late seventies. It is not even fairly thirty years old and it is still improving. When I’m using computers to record and not tape machines, it is kind of odd for me, because recording on tape was so much part of my upbringing that it is hard to accept it got away. Everything is now non-linear and instant access. It is funny, I just think about the time we used to spend just putting the tape on, winding the tape to the right song, rewind the tape every time you want to go from the end to the beginning again and listen to it, on and on, it took a long time. So much time spent… But concerning that reproduction format: I am not happy with the fact that the current generation is hearing so-called high fidelity music on iPod in MP3 format. It is so sad for a professional audio person whose job is to make great sounds, knowing that the final destination for so many people will be an inferior format.’
In addition to my complete agreement – I still have all my old vinyl’s - I confessed that I still record my interviews on cassette, although I have a digital voice-recorder which is handy on relocation. He laughs. ‘Well, cassette wasn’t an ideal format for music either. But yesterday I talked to a journalist and he also recorded on cassette, because he once pushed one (wrong) button on his voice recorder and his interview was gone. You would be surprised how many great recordings disappeared in a haze by pushing one wrong button in modern times!’ (laughs) Of course late sixties – the era of The Beatles – everything was on tape and analogue. ‘First digital things are from the mid seventies,’ says Alan. ‘Actual digital recordings only started in the eighties, but electronic elements pop up in music around 1977-78. Electronic music was ahead of that trend.’
Next the key question was about to be asked. How did it feel when you entered the Abbey Road/EMI Studios as a young guy? Alan smiles and says: ‘I was in heaven when I got a job there! I kind of went through the backdoor, because I was already working for EMI. It all happened very quickly. I was working in the department in West-London, in Hayes (Middlesex) which was manufacturing albums on tapes, on a real-to-reel tape before cassettes got introduced. It was in 1968, before cassettes were common stuff. I was not so long in Hayes, I applied for Abbey Road and within two weeks I went to Abbey Road. It was a great moment!’ Alan was there when ‘Abbey Road’ and ‘Let It Be’ of The Beatles were recorded. We asked him about his experiences with the Fab Four. ‘I didn’t really get to know them. It wasn’t my job at that time to be involved with the artists. I was working at the tape operations, standing in the back and keeping my mouth shut. But yeah, it was a great experience. I think The Beatles were going to difficult times at that moment, that’s been said enough in the media. But if I had the chance to do it all over again I would!’ Parsons will work after the split with Paul McCartney on ‘Red Rose Speedway’ and ‘Wildlife’ and with George Harrison on ‘All Things Must Pass’.
But Pink Floyd was a band with growing success when Alan started to work with them. He started that cooperation with ‘Atom Heart Mother’ and ended up as engineer on the million seller ‘The Dark Side Of The Moon’. Alan remains really cool when saying: ‘Yeah that was good timing too (laughs). I had done something with them on a previous album ‘Atom Heart Mother’ and they asked me if I could offer something special to them for the next album. We worked with 16-track at Abbey Road Studios, but we used an 8-track machine for the delay of the voice in ‘Us And Them’ for instance. At that time it was always experimenting with tape, echo chambers or acoustic treatments.’ It became one of the – if not THE – best selling albums of all times. Parsons got his first Grammy nomination for it, many would follow. ‘It did not make me rich though,’ he replies frankly. ‘I was paid a salary for that and I did not get money from sales. But I have the memory and I have the knowledge that it helped my career enormously. My career would have been very different if I hadn’t done that. Let us conclude that I got the benefits indirectly.’
Next important feature in Alan’s life is the meeting with Eric Woolfson at the Abbey Road offices. With him he started Alan Parsons Project. Alan explains: ‘He had written two or three songs. After we got the interest from a record label, we had finally some money to make an album. Then the compositions for ‘Tales Of Mystery And Imagination’ came into being.’ The albums mostly had mysterious subjects, like the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, Isaac Asimov, the pyramids, and so on. I tell Alan I discovered the art of Spanish architect Gaudi through him. He spontaneously answers: ‘I did too. I hadn’t heard from Gaudi and his art in Barcelona until Eric came up with the idea of making a concept album around that man.’ The DVD is also recorded in Spain at the impressive Plaza Major in the centre of Madrid. ‘We always had a very good history in Spain,’ Alan confirms. ‘They love us there, we always had a great following and that’s why they recorded it.’
There were also albums which had a modernistic, rather cold character, at least in my memories, like ‘I Robot’ and ‘Stereotomy’. When I tell this to Alan he doesn’t agree. ‘’I Robot’ was only our second album and I think it is a very logical sequel on the first album. With ‘Stereotomy’ I think Eric still tried to maintain the idea of a concept album, while I don’t see it like that. Actually it is just a collection of songs. I think it was a good album; it had ‘Limelight’ on it and that’s one of my favourite songs. It is funny; ‘Limelight’ amongst the fans is either their most favourite song or their least favourite song. That’s comparable with ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ which was voted as the best song of all times in the UK and also the worst song ever.’ Talking about favourites, I told him ‘Eye In The Sky’ will always remind me of the funeral of my grandmother. Alan replies: ‘A lot of people say to me they will ask to play ‘Old & Wise’ at their funeral. This song is a very strong classic, especially in Belgium and Holland, more than anywhere else.’ Well, it makes sense…
We asked Alan if there is a chance he will ever come back and perform in Belgium with Alan Parsons Project. ‘I was there at the end of 1998 and I hope to be at the Proms (Night of the Proms) this year, but I am not sure. I am not getting any younger, so I cannot promise anything. I did the Proms last year in Germany in December with Heaven 17 and Roxette. It was a German tour. But the Proms are very successful in Belgium; I think they did enough shows to be seen by every Belgian citizen twice. It is unbelievable. We have participated on it three times. I can’t give you the exact years, but it was rather early after it started, then in the mid nineties and again some years ago.’ With this last question we had to round off our conversation, since another journalist was waiting for an interview. Alan made sure if I had the right sites to inform people and wished me a good day. The eye in the sky was watching…www.alanparsonsmusic.com www.artandscienceofsound.com