INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Keyboard DECEMBER 2016 - by Jerry Kovarsky
Catching up with one of prog-rock's most accomplished artists
Over the course of his career Eddie Jobson has moved from being the "boy wonder" who was playing with many of the top British bands in the early-to-mid '70s (Curved Air, Roxy Music, sessions galore), to performing with some of the top acts of the day (Frank Zappa, Jethro Tull, UK), to becoming one of the most capable elder statesmen of progressive music. A telling sign of his stature among musicians was the role he played at the Official Keith Emerson Tribute Concert last May in Los Angeles. The stage was full of amazing players who all had a connection to Keith, but when it came time to close the show with the ELP classic Lucky Man, it was Eddie who manned a modular Moog to play the iconic synth solo.
Since returning to the stage in 2008 after a twenty-seven-year absence, Jobson has teamed up with some of the most ferocious and musically accomplished players around to play the music he was influenced by and loved (U-Z Project), and to revisit his most enduring band, UK (both in the UKZ project, and the official reunion tours). Having just released a definitive eighteen-disc boxed set of the UK material, Eddie talked with Keyboard about his music, his career, his gear, and much more.
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Since returning to live performance you have put together projects such as UKZ and U-Z before staging a more official UK reunion tour. What were your goals in forming each of those ensembles?
Well, the idea of UKZ was to form a 'players' band, only with a very contemporary flavor to it. It took quite a while to find musicians of the caliber I was used to playing with in the '70s, and I ended up with a German drummer (Marco Minnemann), an American bassist (Trey Gunn), a Belgian singer (Aaron Lippert), and an Austrian guitarist (Alex Machacek). With me being a British keyboardist living in Los Angeles, we ended up forming and recording the first EP without the band ever meeting. Even the group publicity photo was Photoshopped together from individual pictures shot in different cities, and the video was also shot in five different locations with each musician filming themselves against a green screen as they actually recorded their part on the song. It was a truly international project and is one of the few music videos where the band are not synching to a recording, but are actually being filmed live playing onto the recording.
The idea of the U-Z Project, rather than having a fixed band with its own repertoire, was to invite an array of guest players to pay tribute to the best of the progressive genre, including playing music by King Crimson, Mahavishnu Orchestra, ELP, UK, and others. It was that project that got me back together with John Wetton, which led to the UK reunion tours.
UK was certainly the most popular band/project of your career. Can you share some background stories on the composing and recording of those albums?
UK marked the deliberate narrowing down of what I could do stylistically, and saw a focus on one particular approach that best suited my writing and playing - back to the British progressive style I had started with Curved Air in '72. I made a conscious decision to stop playing folk fiddle, as I had on a couple of projects, and rock'n'roll-style piano as I had done on John Entwistle's albums. And while I was at it, lose the Fender Rhodes and the Clavinet and return to using the Hammond C3. I had to find another Hammond for UK, a 1950s model that I had modified, as I had sold my first Hammond to Jon Lord of Deep Purple when I joined Roxy in 1973.
I was also lucky enough to time the formation of UK with the first introduction of the Yamaha CS80 polyphonic synthesizer, so that helped give me a distinctive new sound with which to start writing the UK material. There's no question that instrument inspired the writing of Alaska, In The Dead Of Night, Danger Money, Carrying No Cross, and years later, the entire Green Album.
Actually, In The Dead Of Night was probably the song that came together the quickest and easiest, which is probably why it became UK's signature song. I brought the piece in as a virtually complete three-part suite - mostly written out on sheet music - but it turned out to be one of those songs that everyone just started playing and it immediately worked. Bill Bruford's drumming style fit perfectly with the 7/4 rhythmic lilt; John Wetton added some terrific vocal lines and lyrics; and, of course, it provided the backdrop for Allan Holdsworth to play one of the all-time classic guitar solos on record. Looking back on it, I think it probably established the fact that my writing style worked the best for everyone in the group; John's writing didn't work quite so well for Allan and vice versa, so Bill and I occupied the stylistic center. The Presto Vivace section of the suite was obviously inspired by my tenure with Zappa. My favorite pieces to play with Frank were the highly technical Inca Roads-style keyboard-featured instrumentals that he was famous for, and I really wanted to have a piece like that to play with UK. The original version of Presto Vivace though, before I added the syncopated bass part, was like a Hungarian dance in a regular 7/16 Eastern dance rhythm. That's probably hard to imagine now, if you know the piece.
You recently released a UK boxed set, with a lot of interesting content, and different mixes of the previously released recordings. What were some of the perhaps unexpected musical highlights for you in revisiting all those recordings?
One of the discs is from a tape I had kept for thirty-eight years! It's a rough mix of UK laying down the tracks for the U.K. album. There are one or two overdubs on it, but it is mostly the raw instrumental tracks, pre-vocals. There are even a couple of solos from Allan Holdsworth and myself that didn't make the finished album. So that's pretty interesting to hear. There are also several discs of live radio broadcasts, so you can hear how far out we could get at times... rough around the edges and close to a complete train-wreck on occasion, but quite exciting to listen to so many years later.
You do all this work yourself (save for having Bob Clearmountain do some mixing), as you have done all the work putting together your various ensembles, tours, and concert dates. Why is that?
Ha, I ask myself that all the time. It could be that I am just an extreme control freak! But one thing I have learned from sustaining a forty-five-year career in music, is that when something works well, it helps to know why and how it worked. And if your successes are based on the considerable input of others, then what do you do when they are no longer around? This is essentially what happened to me after I disbanded UK and moved to the U.S. in 1979; I no longer had a management company, a record company, a singer to work with, a lyricist, or any musicians that I knew in the New York area. Yet, I was about to start my first solo album (Zinc - The Green Album). I started then to learn how to do all of the jobs myself, so I could be completely self-reliant. Since then, I have been my own manager, agent, lawyer, recording engineer, designer... and the list keeps growing. I've had my own label for sixteen years, and even promoted some of the concerts myself for UKZ and on the UK tours, including UK's final concert in Tokyo last year. When you deliberately reside on the edge of obscurity, as I tend to do, it is also hard to find people to invest their time and money into what they accurately perceive as risky projects, or to drum up the budgets to hire teams of people; so it is most sustainable, and ultimately most satisfying, to work alone on each element of the project and take personal responsibility for any successes or failures. For me, that's also part of the learning process that helps you to constantly keep improving and becoming more and more self-reliant and truly independent. Conversely though, it is also the same reason why everything takes me so long to do.
You seem to choose your instruments carefully and get deeply inside of them. Can you discuss your relationship with the most important instruments for you over the years?
Well I have always tried to be on the cutting edge of technology - from my early days of synthesizers in 1971, to buying the very first Yamaha CS80 polyphonic synth in Britain, to making the first MTV video with CGI, to buying the first polyphonic Synclavier in New York and making the first all-Synclavier album, which was also one of the first all-digital CD releases. Electric violin, sampling, Direct-to-Disc recording, Euphonix, surround-sound, Blu-ray Audio - the list goes on. With my friend and brilliant technical guru, Hans Tobeason, we have been on the bleeding edge for years.
Hans introduced me to the development of the VAX77 folding keyboard, and to Van Chandler at Infinite Response. As I'd just recently gone back to live performances, we loved the idea of the folding MIDI controller, and it had polyphonic aftertouch, which was a big plus for me. But I found the velocity a little hard to control in the keyboard's early form. So we spent many weeks working with Van to modify the feel of the keys, to make it more touch responsive and controllable. We had to add quite a bit of mass to the keys, but we ended up with a keyboard that is weighted enough for piano playing, but still light enough for Hammond slides.
Are you comfortable with controlling polypressure per finger, or is it mostly a left hand versus right hand thing for you?
I am lucky enough to have very strong and very independent fingers, so using polyphonic pressure aftertouch always felt pretty natural to me. Of course, the first synth with that feature was the CS80, so I used independent pressure control on all of the UK albums; you can hear it clearly on By The Light Of Day, with the filters opening up on individual notes of the chord. The Synclavier had the same feature, as it was built with the Prophet T8 keyboard.
But, you're right, I like to stick with one or two instruments and really squeeze everything out of them - really go deep. An example on the CS80, for instance, would be the big synth solo on Rendezvous 6:02 which was played with all sixteen oscillators in monophonic unison; I still don't think anyone else has figured out how to do that, because there is no obvious way to do it.
The Synclavier was another instrument that I went really deep with. The first thing I did was get hold of the operating manuals, about two months before the system was delivered. I remember sitting on a beach, on vacation in the Caribbean, reading these three giant manuals so I would be able to hit the ground running when the system finally arrived. When I made the Theme of Secrets album a few weeks after the arrival of the Synclavier, I was already familiar enough with the programming software to input many of the electronic motifs, such as the famous 'bouncing balls,' typing it all in using only the qwerty keyboard. And as I did the whole album with only a 10MB hard drive and a now unbelievable 4MB of RAM, I also had to develop some novel micro-looping techniques and use the FM synthesis module as much as possible.
In recent years, Apple's MainStage software stacked with hundreds of AU software instruments is the system I have been milking to its fullest capacity. The recent UK reunion tours really pushed the software to its limits having to replicate all of the CS80, Minimoog, Prophet, VCS3, Triadex Muse, and Hammond sounds from the '70s, all on two laptops. It took me months to rebuild all of those sounds in software. My entire rig consists of two VAX77 keyboards and two Mac laptops running MainStage; plus a bunch of controller pedals. I can do everything I need to do with that setup. And the whole rig folds into a handful of suitcases. My only frustration with the setup is that I wish the pitch wheel was on the top of the VAX, instead of on the side. Also, some of the software instruments, and even MainStage itself, are still a bit glitchy at times. It takes a bit of nerve to be standing in front of a few thousand people relying completely on computer software and a couple of USB connections. And it has all crashed on me more than once. That's the thing with the CP70 and the Hammond: They weighed about ten-thousand pounds, but they always worked.
I know your sound design is very detailed, what did you have to do specifically to satisfy your exacting standards?
You know, I have never been one of those people who likes to say that old analog synths sound so much better than digital plug-ins, or that vinyl sounds so much better than CDs; whether it's true or not. The way I look at it is: Here are the newest tools; let's take advantage of the technological advances and make the best sounding music we can with this technology. I don't consider one set of tools 'purer" than another, and I personally have no desire to go back to the days of tuning oscillators live on stage. It has taken some work, and a developed set of ears, to make the new sounds and to replicate the old sounds I have used in the last several years, but I think, frankly, that the software sounds I now use are actually a marked improvement on most of the original analog sounds - maybe with the exception of the Hammond and the Leslie, but that's probably just my own failing, for lack of time.
Obviously, for the UK CS80 sounds, I started with Arturia's CS-80 V to capture the character of the original sound, but more often than not, I have added a Spectrasonics Omnisphere timbre underneath to give the sound more power and warmth, not to mention stereo width. On a couple of occasions, I would be looking for Omnisphere sounds, for example, for the CS80 strings on 'Thirty Years" and find that Eric Persing, Spectrasonic's brilliant soundsmith, had already created a 'UK Strings' patch that was exactly what I needed. So that saved me some time. I also found a few 'Alaska" patches as presets in a bunch of instruments, but chose to make my own, again with a combination of CS-80 V and Omnisphere, but also using split keyboards and independent right-hand and left-hand oscillator detuning with separate pedal controls. MainStage is fantastic for that kind of thing; my favorite feature is the floating split, which I use all the time. There are enough studio plug-ins, compressors and limiters, software instruments and effects plug-ins to mold any sound for stage use, as long as you have the processing power. Even for the violin, I have been able to find all of the old effects boxes I used to use - the Big Muff fuzz-box, the MXR Phase 90 phaser, the Cry Baby wah-wah. All of it is available in software. My violin sounds are better now than back in the day.
You formed the Zealots Lounge concept in 2010, marketing directly to your fans. Can you relate how you chose to take this self-started effort, and how it has worked out for you?
About ten years ago, it became apparent to me that not only would we see the demise of the optical disc as a delivery medium, but that eventually all content that could be digitized would either be free or, best case, likely to be delivered on a subscription basis from just three or four mega-providers. I used to guess that would be Apple, Sony, Google, and Universal: I wasn't too far off with my prediction. I envisaged that everyone would probably pay thirty dollars-a-month to one of those companies for unlimited digital access to all music, television and movies produced since 1920. More obscure, uncommercial musicians like myself would never be able to make a living competing with every popular hit ever made, especially if we had to rely on some minuscule streaming payment. So I decided to make my music available only on my own independent subscription service and formed the Zealots Lounge. At least that was the original idea for downloads and streaming. I am now putting out the UK Ultimate Collectors' Edition box set into retail and online stores, but only as a physical eighteen-disc set.
Would you suggest it for others?
Oh, I think each individual artist has to decide for themselves the structure of their own business. I left the structure of the mainstream music business in the mid-'80s and have forged my own path since then. This is what works for me. To be honest, I haven't really considered myself part of the so-called music industry since about 1984.
Actually the members of the Zealots Lounge helped get the UK box set started. Instead of using a pre-existing crowd-funding website, I simply started my own 'Z-Funder' campaign using the store on the Zealots Lounge. Having your own fan community as the project funders allows for less pressure, as well, which in my case is a good thing as it has taken me fourteen months to complete the full UK collection.
What are some of the positives and what are some of the pitfalls you have found with this approach?
Well, I would say the biggest pitfall is that maintaining a fully functioning store and secure streaming and downloading platform requires the expense of a super competent technical person as webmaster. Also, producing enough content year after year is hard for someone like me who generally takes at least a year to finish every project I start.
But the most amazing and unexpected thing to come out of the Zealots Lounge is that the 'Zealots' have become quite a community unto themselves; several of them have become friends and stay at each other's houses around the world. Quite a few Zealots also travel all over the world to meet up at my concerts. And in return, I usually get them into the soundchecks and my music lectures, and have arranged private get-togethers at restaurants and bars from Tokyo to Panama. I think building a community of supporters is a terrific thing to do, and having a personal connection with them has been one of the best things about starting the 'Lounge,' without question.
Early on in your career you played with many of the most adventurous groups of the time. I hesitate to put a label on the type of music, but would you reflect on each group and the music you made together?
I have no problem putting labels on any of it - unless you're doing music like Zappa's that crosses over into so many genres. Identifying a musical style is how we communicate and, to some degree, how we identify our intention. I've often said that Mozart wrote terrible punk music! In the early '70s the music we did was called classical rock; it's now referred to as progressive rock. Roxy Music was not that, of course; it was first referred to as glam rock, but later was given the much more respectable moniker of art rock. Roxy, though, were really the first new wave band; the Roxy Music style set the tone for many of the '80s groups.
My early career found me adapting to different styles on a regular basis; I suppose it was both a strength and a weakness. It has been a strength because it has allowed me to venture into a fairly unlimited range of musical environments, from classical to rock, jazz, world, film scoring - you name it. But in the early days, being so diverse was probably detrimental to establishing my own musical identity, at least in the public's mind. In Curved Air, I had to replace two of my musical heroes, the main guys in my favorite group, so I was first seen as the seventeen-year-old 'Darryl Way/Francis Monkman replacement' kid. Then I switched to being the eighteen-year-old Brian Eno replacement in Roxy, until I could put a strong identity on a couple of albums. But, even having done that, I then went right into replacing George Duke and Jean-Luc Ponty in The Mothers. I suppose this is one of the reasons I first turned down Yes in '74: Rick Wakeman had multi-Platinum albums and a big shiny cape; I didn't want to be the nineteen-year-old Wakeman stand-in, even at that point, though it still took me several more years to establish my own identity on keyboards.
As for playing with Jethro Tull, they were such a good group of British gentlemen; solid musicians and super professional on tour. Ian Anderson and I became friends after UK toured with them; enough that he invited me to collaborate with him on his first solo album. Of course, as it wasn't a Tull album, I was given a lot of freedom to layer the tracks with my latest synth sounds and create something different from the usual folky Tull approach. However, when the record company heard it, they thought it was the new, fresh, '80s sound that Jethro Tull needed, so the whole project was turned into a Tull album and subsequent tour. I think some of the hard-core Tull fans were a little taken aback by this new synth-prominent '80s Tull, but it was a great lineup, and it turned out to be easily the most enjoyable arena tour that I ever did.
You recently performed at the Official Keith Emerson Tribute Concert in Los Angeles. How did you feel about your performance? Did Keith have an impact on you personally?
Even though our career paths have been somewhat intertwined, I had only come to know Keith a little, on a personal level, in the last few years. I am glad I had the opportunity to tell him how much he changed my life. When I was a fifteen-year-old classical piano kid, I went to see ELP's first tour: I think it was maybe my second or third rock concert. I still remember the excitement of seeing the big Moog for the first time, and the rotating Leslie cabinets, and feeling the sheer power shaking the theater as they kicked into Barbarian. Until I saw that, I had no idea that it was even possible for a piano player to essentially blow people's heads off, as that did. To this day, when I'm onstage playing something like Alaska, I still remember what that experience felt like to me as a young musician, and I revel in thinking that I may be having that same effect on people when I'm onstage. So to be asked to stand in for Keith and rattle the theater playing the big modular on Lucky Man was more than an honor, it was truly a profound moment that transported me back forty-six years to that Odeon Theater in Stockton-on-Tees, England. I could never have imagined back then that I would end up being that guy onstage.
It seems that you have now finished looking back over your previous works/bands. So what lies in the near future?
I'm a big believer in 'natural resonance,' so I tend to let the future unfold in its own way. But I do prefer the quiet and focus of the studio over touring, so my performing days may be over. We'll see. In the short term, I would like to keep working on studio productions, but I have still not given up on my childhood dream of becoming a serious symphonic composer. I've just got to figure out how to fund a project of that magnitude. Maybe that's what I'll do in retirement.