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Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire vs. Peter Gabriel

Body and Soul Music

Dec 19, 2014 Richard Reed Parry Bookmark and Share

Peter Gabriel is running late. For a man known for his pioneering use of technology, it must be humbling that the reason he’s keeping Arcade Fire multi-instrumentalist Richard Reed Parry waiting is because he can’t figure out how to dial into a conference call. To his credit, Parry doesn’t seem to mind; he’s just excited to talk to one of his heroes again, the two having met in 2012 in Montréal when Gabriel was doing an orchestral tour. To hear Parry tell it, Gabriel’s work casts a long shadow over his own, from Genesis’ landmark 1974 release The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway to his orchestral soundtrack work on 1985’s Birdie and 1989’s Passion. The appreciation is mutual, too, as Gabriel recorded Arcade Fire’s “My Body Is a Cage” for his 2010 covers album, Scratch My Back. Three years later, Arcade Fire would return the favor by covering his “Games Without Frontiers” for the Gabriel-directed I’ll Scratch Yours.

Though the two acts might not seem to have many obvious similarities, it’s hard to imagine Arcade Fire’s genre-shuffling Reflektor without predecessors such as Gabriel’s 1986 classic So. Mixing in shades of African, Caribbean, and South American musical forms, So sold five million copies in the U.S. and made Gabriel a legitimate household name, its now-iconic “Sledgehammer” dominating both radio and MTV for months. And where Gabriel helped expand the scope of pop music through his interest in world music and his use of sampling, Parry’s recent solo album, Music for Heart and Breath, could expand the way technology is used to connect musicians to their bodies. Performed by musicians who are hooked up to stethoscopes that allow them to hear and play along with the rhythm of their heartbeats, the album’s pieces offer the promise of an endlessly malleable musical experience, one that’s based on players’ biology as much as their conscious decisions. But if Parry thought he was going to use this interview as an opportunity to pick the brain of a genius, he was at least partly wrong. It turns out Gabriel had just as many questions for him.

Peter Gabriel: I’m really sorry to be late, but I was struggling to get in from this Italian number. It was beyond me. I don’t know what I was doing wrong; it could have been something simple.

Richard Reed Parry: Where are you in Italy?

Peter: We’ve got a place in Sardinia. My daughter just celebrated her 40th birthday, and we’re here with a lot of friends. It has been very nice. Where are you? Are you back home or on the road?

Richard: I’m back home. I’m in the country, outside of Montréal. We’re heading to Japan in a week and a half. I’m home until then.

Peter: Excellent. I’m sorry, but I’ve been trying and failing with a link I was given for your record, which I would like to hear. I couldn’t get it to work, but now I have the link, and I’ve found the [Deutsche] Grammophon site, so I’ve seen a video clip and have, therefore, only heard snippets. But that sounds like a great project, and I love this idea of connecting to breathing and heartbeats.

Richard: Yeah, it seems to have an appeal to many musicians that have come across it so far. Everyone’s first reaction seems to be that they’re shocked that no one has done this before, which I was also shocked about. There have been a couple of people in deeper experimental music circles who have experimented with the idea a little bit but only in passing and not in a committed, regulated way.

Peter: Well, I like the fact that the bodies are then in control of the piece. When we were first doing The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway 25 years agoor 40 years ago now, actuallythere was a guy in Boston I went to see called Dr. Rich Ingrasci, who was pioneering biofeedback uses in medicine. At that point, I was trying to get a piece to start The Lamb…, which would be to use a heartbeat to drive the rhythm and then take some of the other biofeedback outputs from the brain and body as control parameters. It was a different idea, and it was going to be just generated from body output. I couldn’t sell it to the band at that time, but there was a guyI’m trying to remember his namethat was also Boston-based that had an organ that would link up to his body. It was a different approach from yours, which I think is very fresh and nice. I think what you’ve done is sort of integrate the performance controls and time. I used to love some of the [John] Cage things and allowing the accidents to determine what happens. Like I said, I haven’t had a chance to hear it, but I’m intrigued by your ideas.

Richard: It’s definitely more in the school of that Cage thinking. There’s this beautiful American composer named Alvin Lucier who has done a lot of pieces using the actual brainwaves of a performer, but where a performer will have to sit and get themselves into an alpha wave state. Then the brainwaves will start to register through the machines, and the machines are attached to various progressive gongs and percussive sound makers. It’s quite beautiful, but the musical result of it is very different every time, which is similar to my pieces. It’s quite arbitrary what happens every time and the sounds are quite arbitrary, as well. On the one hand, this is much more controlled, because it is specific notes and specific harmonies that are played by classical players, but it’s asking them to let down some of their intuitions that they have to use as classical performers and replace them with this quieter intuition. You have to follow the impulses of the body and relinquish some of your control as a player.

Peter: I think you’ve carved a very original niche, and I’m sure just by having to focus on your breath and your heartbeat you automatically enter more of a meditative zone.

Richard: I think so, yeah. What’s been really nice so far is that it seems to change things as much for the performers as it does for the audience, which is really pleasing for me as a composer. To watch that is great, because before we play these pieces I’ll explain it to the audience if they don’t realize who it is that’s performing this music and why everyone is strapping into stethoscopes. So once you do that and explain what’s going on and that each musician is doing what they’re supposed to do and they’re fitting their phrasing in with their breathing and their heartbeat, it’s pretty transparent most of the time. You can, as a listener, hear how it’s happening. And then a listener can have really great experiences, because they find themselves trying to relate their own breathing and their own heartbeats and their own pulses directly to what’s going on onstage, and that can be quite a transcendent musical experience for a listener, as well as for a performer. As a listener it can really put you in a different zone.

Peter: You’re talking about a handful of things. One of the other ideas that this guy, Rich Ingrasci, suggested is that if all the audience held hands so that you had one long chainwhich could or could not include the performers in some sort of physical contactthere’s a tendency for heartbeats to settle around a common rhythm. So you impact those around you. That would be an interesting experiment with a very small audience, whether you can persuade the musicians to play footsy with naked feet at the same time that they’re playing live, I don’t know.

Richard: It’s definitely a challenge to get them strapped into the stethoscopes at the same time as they’re holding stringed instruments and wind instruments.

Peter: Do they get in the way, the stethoscopes?

Richard: They’re a little cumbersome. It’s mostly challenging because you have to have one of your ears plugged with a stethoscope. It’s fairly extreme, because any classical musician is used to having the use of their ears and eyes, and doing this they have to have one of their ears blocked by their stethoscope, and then they have one more stream of sound they have to be responding to. So they’re listening to their own heartbeat, their own instrument, the instruments of everyone around them, and they’re reading sheet music and taking visual cues from other musicians. Only one of the pieces uses a conductor, and the rest is chamber ensembles, so in terms of things to keep track of as a musician, it’s quite a head-full.

Peter: I’m sure.

Richard: I wanted to ask you a couple questions about the more instrumental work that you’ve done, specifically the Birdie soundtrack and then Passion. I was interested in those, because they’re so sprawling and orchestral at times. I’m quite curious about the writing process and how those things came together, because you had a lot of musicians in a lot of different formations and a lot of different types of pieces with different types of arcs. How much was written down and how much was taking group improvisations and shaping them afterwards?

Peter: Well, I’m terrible at scoring, so for most of them I would map out rhythms and melodies or sounds, and then they would improvise around some of it. Some rhythm and melody and harmonyand they would take it away. From piece to piece, it varied according to how much it was written ahead of time and how much was played. For me, it was a very liberating experience, because not having to play a song meant that I could explore the textures in a different way. I think that I had as much fun in making the Passion record as anything I’ve worked on.

Richard: I can imagine. It’s much more you in the seat of composer and producer as opposed to the seat of songwriter, and those are quite different roles and tasks in one’s musical brain.

Peter: I think it is. I think sometimes also you make different decisions. I’ve always believed there were two types of creative energy, what I call Energy A, which is more analytical, and Energy Z, which is more Zen-like, which is when the recording light is on and people are improvising and reacting spontaneously to external stimuli or accidents. I think some of the music that I love the best seems to integrate or layer both of those approaches. If you ask almost anyone to create a rhythm or a melody or a timbreanything, reallyand they do it spontaneously without thinking about every note and constructing it mentally, you get two very different results. They both have real strengths to them, but I love to mix the two.

Richard: It seems like much of the strongest music is when those two sides, those two processes, meet.

Peter: I’m curious about the Arcade Fire process, because the minimalist things in your music seem to be more maximalist, because you throw a ton of stuff at things. What is the sequence there?

Richard: It’s really different song to song, which I think you can feel in the record. But there’s a lot of addition and subtraction, and some things come in really fully-formed in terms of a song and a narrative arc and a lyric, and Win [Butler] will come in and say, “It’s got this, and it’s all here.” And some things just come out of the ether, because we do play together and make noise together and see what small seeds come out. Usually, whether something sinks or swims is whether there’s a lyrical idea that feels tangible and exciting, but also sometimes we’ll have something where you can feel that the music is exciting even if there aren’t proper lyrics for it or any real context for them. We just feel that something has a real specific exciting energy for it, and we want to see it through, and the lyrics will come as the very last thing in the process. That can be a really grueling thing, for Win and Régine [Chassagne] to work on lyrics. It’s so different song to song. Sometimes we’ll immediately have a picture, like, “Oh, this should sound like this and it should be stripped back and natural,” and sometimes we’ll go round after round after round of trying it in different ways. And often we’ll take a song where we’ll have a progression and melodic material, and we’ll try it in the manner of many different bands. That’s sometimes a way to get the creative angle correct to find something that’s fresh and exciting, because often you’ll write a song and you’ll say, “Okay, this sounds too much like The Pixies. Why don’t we try and play this like a Rolling Stones song and see what happens?” Or, “Why don’t we play this like a reggae song and see what happens?” And none of the time does it end up sounding like a Rolling Stones song or a proper reggae song. You just shift your sensibility and let things slip in.

Peter: That sounds a bit like Brian [Eno]‘s strategy cards.

Richard: Yeah, the Oblique Strategies.

Peter: Oblique Strategies, yeah, for making records where you have to do this idea in this kind of role.

Richard: And I love that. I discovered that as a teenager, and it really turns me on in a lot of ways.

Peter: Yeah, I like that a lot, and before that there was a similar sort of way of allowing the random to do its work.

Richard: Which is what Cage was doing.

Peter: The thing that interests me is that maybe songs should be allowed to live many lives. The process can be as interesting, if not more interesting, than the product. We’re also in a music business which sells recordings-or tries to, anywaybut those are like photographs of a moment trapped in time, and songs are like people. They live and grow and die and evolve. I’m trying to interest a few people in the idea of processthat you need to follow a song through its life, from original inspirations.

Richard: You’ve been doing that live to some extent, haven’t you? Working on a song as a work in progress?

Peter: Yeah, that was a starting point. The bands that I like to hearI like to hear their whole process.

Richard: Minus the arguing part.

Peter: Yes, minus the arguing part. You still have a band life, as well. I have a band life, but it’s now different, with less arguing. Now they’re working for me, and it’s not a democracy. We’ve got an old Genesis record coming out, and we’ve been discussing artwork, and I suddenly remember what democracy and being in a band is about.

Richard: [Laughs] Yes. You feel slightly annoyed a lot of the time.

Peter: Yeah, and everyone comes in with a “More Me” T-shirt.

Richard: Guilty as charged.

Peter: We all are. But now you have this other life. Have you always had this other life of composition and classical strings?

Richard: This is my first official record as a solo composer, which is quite satisfying, but it has been a long time coming. For me, compared to the Arcade Fire music, it’s the most extreme opposite musical world. It’s so delicate and quiet and fragile and intimate, and it’s all written by me sitting in the quietness and composing quietly. For me, the fact that Arcade Fire had this runaway success and it immediately steamrolled everything else that I was doing in my life, in terms of time, musically, has been something to adjust to, and it has been a long and slow adjustment. But I feel like I’m hitting my stride now in terms of getting the balance right. I love what we do as a band, but I’m writing choral music for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and I’m doing this chamber record and writing a symphonic piece collaboratively for next year that’s based on ocean rhythms. The classical world and the experimental worldI’m really into a very broad spectrum of music and interested in exploring that as an artist, as well as a listener. It feels like as an artist, I’m coming into the pace that I like to be keeping, as far as having my hands in the different musical streams at the same time. I’m sure you’ve experienced something quite similar.

Peter: Absolutely. Is the rest of the band also interested in scheduling that individual time?

Richard: Yeah, in different forms. Will [Butler] is in the middle of making a little miniature solo EP record, and Jeremy [Gara], our drummer, always loves to play with as many people and as much as he possibly can, and I think he’ll always be that way. Tim [Kingsbury] is also a super beautiful songwriter and singer, and at some point soon he’ll make that a little more public. It takes time, because it’s a strange phenomenon to be in an absurdly famous rock band that is in demand all the time, because on one hand, it’s super appealing and you feel like you can’t turn away from it. But at the same time there are more important things in the world than maintaining your pace and your status as a “famous” rock band. You have to be willing to listen to your inner voice rather than the success model or the make-the-most-money-in-the-least-amount-of-time model that is used so much in the entertainment industry. For everybody, it’s finding that balance between being true to ourselves as people and artists and the long view of what we want to do with our lives and not wanting 10 years to disappear into a blur of tour buses and publicity.

Peter: Well, that sounds very wise. My daughter’s partner introduced me toI’m going to get the name wrong probablybut Owen Pallett…

Richard: Yeah, he’s amazing!

Peter: There’s some beautiful tracks there that I heard, too. You’ve got a wealth of talent on board.

Richard: Yeah, we do seem to keep good company. So…the last time I saw you was on the orchestra tour when you played in Montréal. Is that a phase that is over?

Peter: I don’t know. I really enjoyed it, because there was this space in the orchestral arrangements that allowed for a different type of singing and vocal performance. That whole range of colors that you get from the players that is really very different. So there’s a couple of these record ideas, though I’m notoriously slow, I’d like to get out first. But then I’d like to go back to working with an orchestra at some point in the future.

Richard: Yeah, it was great to hear all of those songs reanimated in that way. I loved it. I thought it was amazing.

Peter: Great… Well, do you think we have enough [for the interview]?

Richard: I imagine we do. We’ve been talking for a while. I imagine you have a nice family scenario to get back to now.

Peter: I do indeed. We just had a strong wind that has died, so it should be a pleasant evening here.

Richard: Well, it has been a pleasure.

Peter: Apparently my six-year-old wants to meet you.

Richard: Well, I would like to meet your six-year-old. That’s mutual.

Peter: Well, Richard, I hope you have a nice break, such that it is. I guess it won’t be much of a break if you’re working.

Richard: Yeah, it won’t be much of a break, but I’ll rest later.

Peter: Right. In another life.

[Note: This article first appeared in Under the Radar’s September/October print issue (Issue 51).]


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