Petra Haden | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Petra Haden

The Former that dog. Member Discusses Joining The Decemberists and her A capella Version of The Who Sell Out

May 02, 2005 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

If you’re reading this, then you probably already know who Petra Haden is. For the uninitiated, she’s the daughter of legendary jazz bassist Charlie Haden. She was born one of three triplets along with sisters Tanya and Rachel.

In the mid-90s she played violin and sang harmonies in the punkish Los Angeles-based group that dog, which also featured her sister Rachel, as well as Anna Waronker and Tony Maxwell. They released two lo-fi albums filled with loud guitars and complex vocal harmonies; 1994’s self-titled debut, and 1995’s Totally Crushed Out. In 1997 they put out Retreat From the Sun, a Brad Wood-produced affair that had a catchier, poppier sound that focused more on Waronker, and actually garnered some MTV rotations. The group disbanded soon after. During her tenure with that dog, Petra released an experimental solo album called Imaginaryland in 1996. It was largely made up of Petra’s a-cappella voice collages, and featured original songs and varied covers. In 1999 she released Bella Neurox, a collaborative instrumental album with accordionist Miss Murgatroid.

Beyond a slew of guest spots and session work with everyone from Victoria Williams to Green Day, not much was heard from Petra Haden in the new millennium. Then in 2005, fans were greeted with a triple-threat of projects. Petra recorded an album with jazz guitarist Bill Frisell plainly titled Petra Haden and Bill Frisell. She joined up with everyone’s favorite swashbuckling indie kids, The Decemberists. And most notably, she released Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out, a completely a-cappella version of the British invaders’ famed 1967 opus. Petra recreates the entire album, singing the vocals, guitar parts, percussion, and the incidental commercials between songs.

I spoke with Petra briefly while she was on the road with The Decemberists. Though the interview mainly focuses on her reinterpretation ofThe Who Sell Out, I tried to cover a few other areas that might interest fans. Enjoy!

Under the Radar: Was this a fun project for you to do?

Petra Haden: Yeah, it was fun. It started out where I had some downtime. that dog had broken up, I think it was ’97, and I had just been recording on people’s records and being kind of a session player and recording stuff on my own, but just on my 4-track, just for fun, and also collaborating with different people, but I never had my own thing. And I had recorded with Mike Watt a lot. We hung out and talked about music a lot, and he always would talk about The Who and I never really thought about The Who. And then he came up with this idea, he said, “Pet I think it would be such a fun project for you to do, I have an 8-track, a Tascam 488, that I don’t really use and I want to give it to you and I’ll put The Who Sell Out on the eighth track and you could fill up the rest of the seven tracks with your voice. Just filling up all of the guitar and the drums and the bass and the vocals and I think that would be really great ‘cause d. boon and I wanted to do an a-cappella version of The Who Sell Out.”

I think that’s what he said and I was like, “What?!” I don’t know what that would sound like. And I think ‘cause of my record Imaginaryland, which was a-cappella, I think that’s why he thought of it. And he knows how much I love to sing and record over my voice and experiment like that. So he gave me the 8-track and of course I started it right away. I started “I Can See For Miles” ‘cause that was the popular song, the only song I knew on that record. I listened to it twice and trying to pick out the harmonies. I mean it was easy to do but at the same time it was kind of hard because there were all these weird, dissonant… I’m not like a music skilled person. There are minor or major seventh or diminished chords and I was thinking, “God, how am I going to this? And how am I going to do this because I don’t even know how to work this 8-track.” So I would call him a lot asking him to explain it to me again and again, and he was really patient. So then I kind of procrastinated and put it off for a while. It took me almost three years, but I didn’t even know I was going to put it out.

UTR: When did you decide to release?

Petra: Almost 2003. When Mike Watt heard a rough mix of it, he said, “You should put this out.” I thought like, it sounds really shitty because you could hear all the mistakes. You could hear me dropping the piece of paper on the floor, or I pressed rewind a lot and it’s on a Maxell tape. I used a microphone, I don’t know where I got it. I think I got it from my brother’s room. It looked like it was ten years old, it had dents in it. And headphones that didn’t work, so the sound quality was really lo-fi.

I kind of laughed, I thought, “No one will put this out.” He said, “No I really think people should hear this.” That’s when I thought okay, I’ll call my cousin John ‘cause he recently started to learn Pro Tools. And Mike said, “Why don’t you get rid of a lot of the noise on Pro Tools and have it cleaned up.” And that’s what I did. I called John and we went to his friend’s studio with a computer and Pro Tools and he just deleted all the weird coughs and fuck ups that I did.

I even got some of the lyrics wrong that I realized, okay, I’ll have to get the lyrics from the internet. It just was kind of like a funny, but serious project. Then my friend Jennifer Sharpe, who has a website called, she called me, and she’s a huge fan of The Who, and she said, “Is it okay if I use ‘Armenia City in the Sky’ for a piece that I’m doing on instruments that sound like voices? I think that would be great for this little segment for my website.” And I said, “Okay.”

So that’s how Irwin Chusid heard it. I didn’t know who he was, but I heard he was a producer who’s been around a while and produced some obscure and different music throughout the years. Jennifer emailed me and said, “I think you should know this Petra. This guy Irwin Chusid really likes this project and he thinks that he could help you put it out on a label.” So I just went with that. I ended up talking to him on the phone a lot and he said that he was friends with the people from Bar/None. He played it for Bar/None and I got a call the next day from Glenn Morrow and he said, “Well we really want to put it out.” And I thought, “Okay, even how it sounds?” And they said, “Well, it’s charming and that’s what we like about it.”

UTR: Did you use any effects on your voice when you recorded it or was it straight into the mic?

Petra: When I recorded it I didn’t use any effects. But when my cousin remixed it, I thought maybe we should add a little reverb or something to make it sound a little professional. The originalThe Who Sell Out starts off with this, (sings) “Monday, Tuesday,” and it sounds like a radio kind of vocoder effect. So he put a little bit of that on. I was getting a little out of hand with it ‘cause I wanted… I forget which song it was, but the guitar had distortion and I thought maybe my voice on this track should be distorted to sound more like a distorted guitar. So that’s what he did. He just put little effects here and there, but for the most part it’s pretty clean or straight.

UTR: I read in the LA Weekly that you’re thinking of performing it live.

Petra: Yeah, this happened a couple months ago. People were asking me, “How are you going to perform this live?” I used to perform my Imaginaryland stuff live, but with a tape playing next to me with my background vocals, and I would control it myself. I thought it would be so much more interesting if I had a group of girls singing.So of course I asked my sisters first. My sister Tanya was able to do it, but my sister Rachel was busy with other projects.I don’t know if she’s still going to join, but then my friend Dawn, whose house my cousin mixed it in, she’s a singer and Dawn really expressed a lot of interest..So she called some of her friends and then I called

some of my friends and before I know it, I have this ten-piece choir. We practiced at her house and it was so neat just to hear it live with all the different kinds of voices. And all the ranges were perfect, and everyone has a really good musical ear, so that helped. And we started practicing “I Can See For Miles” and I almost cried, it was so funny. I had to stop because I was laughing so hard because I couldn’t believe it.

UTR: When are you going to perform it?

Petra: Not yet. We’re more than half way through the songs and July 1st is, I think, going to be our first show. It’s almost for sure.

UTR: Is that going to be an LA show?

Petra: Yeah, it’s going to be in LA. I don’t know where yet, but I’m sure in the next week I’ll know.

UTR: Did you take vocal lessons when you were a kid or are you self-taught?

Petra: I guess the way I learned to sing was really with my sisters, ‘cause we used to sing together all the time, and also being in that dog I’m used to singing harmony a lot. So I didn’t take vocal lessons, but I took violin lessons, but then I quit when I was in high school. But I didn’t really take normal voice lessons. I guess just listening to the Bulgarian Vocal Female Choir was my vocal lesson.

UTR: You seem to have a good range with your voice. Was there stuff that was tough to sing or out of your range on the album?

Petra: The only thing I pitch-changed on my 8-track was that song, it’s called “Medac.” I think it’s a commercial, and the voice is really super low, and one of the notes I wanted to hit, I couldn’t ‘cause it was so low, so I just moved the pitch change to high. So when I played it normally, it was really low. That’s the only thing I changed. Another song that was really high, but I ended up pulling it off, was—I don’t know why I thought to do this, but “Odorono.” I for some reason felt like I was possessed by Snow White, and I thought I could sing it like a soprano opera singer. That was the only thing that was a little difficult, but it ended up working out good.

UTR: On this and Imaginaryland you’re often just singing consonants or notes. What’s your process for figuring out what sound to sing?

Petra: When I did Imaginaryland, I first did it on my 4-track and I played it for my friend, Tom Grimley, who actually recorded the first that dog record. It was his idea for me to put out Imaginaryland, and he had a 16-track. I sing the “Bach Prelude Number 2 in C minor.” I don’t sing words on that record, but for some of the notes that I sing, I felt like I had to do something different. And he said, “Why don’t you use a different syllable like instead of “da” say “ma.” So I did that, and ever since the beginning of Imaginaryland, I started to realize I don’t just have to sing one way. I could even sing different syllables, not words, but almost like another language or something.

UTR: You’ve been doing music for a long time and yet this is only your second true solo album. Is there any reason for that?

Petra: I’m so used to collaborating with people and The Who Sell Out is like a solo record, but it’s also The Who. It’s weird. When I write music, I work better when I collaborate which is what Bill and I did, but we also did covers on our record, the Bill Frisell record. And towards the end of that record is when he and I really started to write together. For my next record, that’s sort of what I want to do. I want to do another record with original songs and I think I really want to find the perfect person to help me write original stuff ‘cause that’s the best way I work. ‘Cause I don’t know how to write a song, I think that’s why I like covering songs I love.

UTR: You do seem to collaborate with a lot of different artists. Is that because they’re fans of yours and they ask you to do it or do you seek them out?

Petra: With Bill, he saw me play a show in Seattle with a friend of mine who plays accordion, Alicia Rose, Miss Murgatroid. And he called me and asked me to record a record, and I couldn’t believe it because he’s this huge jazz star. I guess it does happen where they seek me out. I feel really lucky or I don’t know what the word would be, just happy that that ends up happening that way. So far every musician I’ve collaborated with, I’ve been a fan of. And sometimes I call them and they’re too busy to work with me, but still it always ends up that I work with someone who I really look up to.

UTR: You’re playing with The Decemberists now, are you a full-fledged member of the band?

Petra: Yeah, it’s funny. We had a show, and I was hesitant to do that ‘cause I wanted to work on my own stuff and have time for that, but it works out really good. Colin [Meloy, The Decemberists’ lead-singer] just asked me straight out once before we played, he put his arm on my shoulder and he said, “Petra, will you just be in our band? We love you.” And I love them, I’m a big fan of theirs, so I just said you know what, “Okay, this is the best job I could have.” And he wants me to help write too, so I feel really happy about that. And I know I’ll have time to do other stuff.

UTR: I remember you played with Matt Sharp’s band, The Rentals, back in the day and I remember you were sort of hesitant to say that you were a member of that band.

Petra: Yeah it’s weird. I never toured with them, I never played live. I recorded a lot of singing and violin. I guess the reason I say that is I never said I was a part of the band. I just thought I was helping out, and [Matt Sharp] got together his own group to perform. I guess I was, I could say I was a member, but that was so long ago.

UTR: I was going through some of your credits and wanted to throw out a couple names of people you’ve worked with and get your reactions. I know you’ve worked with Beck a lot, you guys sang with him back when you were with that dog, and did you just sing with him on his new album?

Petra: Yeah, he wanted me to sing a part in, I think it’s called “Rental Car.” The Dust Brothers actually wanted me to do it, Beck did, but I got the call [from them] and so when I got to the studio, they said, “This is what we want you to emulate.” And it was this, I don’t know where it was from or what time it was from, but it sounded like another language, a group of women singing like “La la la la la la,” like it’s really weird, out there. I think because Beck knows how much I like to layer my voice. I think that’s why he thought of me. And I was so excited. I thought he was going to be there, but he wasn’t. But still it was a lot of fun to do that.

UTR: And then I also saw that you sang back-up with Bette Midler on a song.

Petra: Yeah, that’s another funny thing. That was years ago. This producer Brock Walsh, I did some session stuff with him a couple times. Just like background harmony things, I don’t know what it was for, but then he called me and said, “Petra I think you’d be great for this Bette Midler song.” I think it was about a mother and a child and holding a baby, and it had this really high harmony on the chorus of the song. So I went in there and I did it. I wanted to meet her. I love her, she’s so funny, and I was so mad that she wasn’t there.

UTR: And you sang with Cibo Matto for a while with Yuka Honda and Sean Lennon.

Petra: Yeah actually I met Sean first when that dog was still together. He called me out of the blue, I don’t know how he got my number, but I got this message and it was, “Hi, this is Sean Lennon. I have Imaginaryland and I was wondering if we could maybe talk about writing songs together.” I didn’t know what to think if it was a crank call or what. But I ended up calling the number and I go “Hello.” And he was like, “Petra, I have Imaginaryland and it’s my favorite record right now.” And I just was like, it was so funny, it was neat.

He’s still a friend of mine now, but this was in ’96 I think. So I flew to New York and I stayed with him and we wrote a-cappella songs together, that I have no idea what we’re going to do with still. That was really fun, and that’s how I met Yuka Honda and I ended up writing songs with her too. All these great musicians, I was on a roll for a while, like, “Oh my god, how did this happen?” Such talented people want to work with me.

UTR: I read in some articles that [The Who’s] Pete Townsend really likes the record. Have you talked to him?

Petra: No, I didn’t talk to him, but I just heard that he really loved it. I hope I get to meet him. I’m still waiting. I actually wrote to him saying thank you, but I think he’s touring right now. But I know some day I’ll meet him.

UTR: What’s the deal with the bear on the cover of Imaginaryland the somehow snuck onto the cover of your new record?

Petra: I’m so glad you recognized that. That’s Imaginary Bear. My sister Tanya is the creator of Imaginary Bear. That doll, we found years and years ago from when we used to baby-sit. I guess the little girl we babysat left it our house, and Tanya lifted it and said, “What is this bear?” And all of a sudden she said, [funny voice] “Hi, my name’s Imaginary Bear.” And it was so hilarious, just her whole character of this little stuffed animal bear with this plastic nose with a game inside it. So I thought, “I’m going to make a record based on Imaginary Bear, I’m going to call itImaginaryland.” Imaginary Bear, he has a checkered past. I’m sure you’ll get to interview him too some day. He was a drug addict, he lived on the streets, he was a boozer and a loser, and now his purpose in

the world is to make everyone happy. He’s just turned around and in Imaginaryland you go cloud hopping and it rains gum drops and everything is just like heaven. And that’s where I got the idea for Imaginaryland. I have a song called “Moon Milk,” and “Look Both Ways Before You Cross.” It’s kind of like a kids’ record. I see it as a kids’ record.

So I thought okay, I see this fuzzy bear that John Entwistle’s holding in this picture and I thought, “Where am I going to get a bear that looks like that? Oh, well hello, where’s Imaginary Bear?” So I took Imaginary Bear with me and now he’s not talking to me because I forgot to thank him on the album.

UTR: I guess my last question is do you have any thoughts looking back on that dog? Do you miss being in that group?

Petra: It was a growing experience and it helped me see how much I love performing and working with good songwriters and meeting new people and traveling. I don’t know if I miss it, but the thoughts I have on that dog are just all positive right now. It’s just like it was a good time and a growing experience for me. It got me playing the violin again. When I started playing with that dog, I didn’t play my violin. I wanted to play something and that’s when I thought okay, “Why don’t I just get my violin out of my closet.” So I just have good feelings about it.

UTR: I guess just to clarify your plans for the future, you’ve got an a-cappella album that you’re working on and then another solo album that you’re planning on?

Petra: I want to do original songs and I’m thinking that I want to do it with different people. I want to write some songs with Bill and I’m still thinking of other people I want to write with. So it’s going to be sort of a collective project, different musicians that I really love. I can’t wait for that.


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January 10th 2011

Petra Haden is a very gifted musician, but she never seemed to fit in with the Decemberists in a live setting (and her violin was always mixed too loud). Her recorded work is great, but her live vocals, at least with the Decemberists, weren’t on par with her recordings.
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