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Richard X Heyman Talks About His Generation

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Nancy Leigh
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Richard X. Heyman’s latest album, Pop Circles, is a look back at the 1960s and the Baby Boom generation. Filled with Heyman’s classic sense of pop harmonies and infectious hooks, the album was in part inspired, he says, by the fact that many people in that generation are now dying off as well as the difficulty of describing the experience of the 1960s to anyone who wasn’t there.

Appended with the EP, Richie’s Three-Chord Garage, the record finds Heyman joined by his wife, Nancy Leigh (bass, harmony vocals) with Julia Kent and Chris Jenkins providing cello and viola, respectively.

Heyman’s also recently issued Running For Covers with his longtime garage rock outfit The Doughboys. “I’m competing with myself,” he says, “somewhat unexpectedly.”

Heyman recently spoke with KMUW about these new releases, skipping Woodstock and the immeasurable impact of the Beatles.

Interview Highlights

Pop Circles has been referred to as a love letter to the baby boomers.

In the past I would have always been concerned about appealing to a wide variety of people. Young, old. I wanted to draw everybody in. This time I narrowed my focus to people who grew up in the same era that I did as far as the music that I was going to put on the album and the lyrical references. It’s all geared toward the baby boomers. If anyone else wants to listen in, I welcome their listenership wholeheartedly but it was really about my generation.

That generation remains influential in most areas of the culture, especially music. And not just the music that it made but the music it was listening to. I doubt you can pick up a guitar today and not, in some way, be influenced by the Beatles.

The music we listened to was created by the generation before. I guess you’d call them the war babies. They were born in the early 1940s. We baby boomers were the fans. I was always impressed that there was this incredible well of creativity and talent in that generation that I don’t think has been matched. I don’t think there’s another Beatles out there. Or Bob Dylan.

What are the things that you think defined your generation? I’m late Gen X but I never felt a kinship with that idea or the things that were supposed to define us. I never thought, “We’re working toward a common goal.”

We’re literally dying off and I wanted to speak my peace. A lot of profound things happened during the ‘60s. The music was unbelievable. We had all the geo-political turmoil.

It’s interesting because a lot of people look at the current climate and draw parallels between the 1960s and now both socially and politically.

Huh. I guess that may be true from someone else’s perspective. I don’t see it that way. The thing with the ‘60s, though, at least with rock ‘n’ roll, is that things were happening for the very first time. Each new record that came out by the Beatles of The Yardbirds or The Animals or The Byrds was a milestone, a step forward to maybe a new guitar sound or some kind of new technique, something that had never been heard before. Eric Clapton brought out the sustain of the electric guitar that he learned from the blues masters like Albert King. We didn’t know about that until Eric Clapton showed us how that was done. It was all innovative and groundbreaking constantly.

You were already playing in bands at that time. Oh yeah. Was there a record that got you really excited about rock music? I know, for some people, Jimmy Page’s solo on “Heartbreaker” was monumental.

In the early ‘60s, pre-Beatles, there was a different vibe. That whole Brill Building thing. That was a steady diet that I was influenced by. I was listening to Phil Spector records and the “girl group” records, like The Shirelles. A monumental record for me was “Uptown” by The Crystals. I was with one of my older sisters who was on a date. I was in the back of the car at a hamburger stand. That song was on the radio and the speaker was right behind my head. It was a time when music moved me almost to tears. It was so beautiful. It was cathartic. That was the beginning of that feeling. There were some Everly Brothers songs that did that for me. But when the Beatles hit that was a watershed moment. I heard “She Loves You” and it had all of that: Brill Building sensibilities, mixed with Everly Brothers harmonies. It had a certain happy sad quality to it. That’s my favorite music to this day, music that makes me wistful and melancholy but I’m also happy at the same time. It might just be the chord sequences or just the beautiful sound of the music. Feeling those dual emotions is kind of nice.

You mentioned the guitar sounds earlier. It’s fascinating because they were revolutionary and yet so primitive. Have you embraced all the new technologies?

I go for the end result. Whatever gets me there. I don’t use Auto-Tune or things like that. I’ve advanced to computerized recording. Otherwise you’d have to go to a proper recording studio with a huge board. It’s impractical and too expensive. So I embraced each step as it moved forward, technologically. I can make music in my bedroom now. But I’m a drummer, and I still consider it my main instrument, so I do go to a big studio and set up mics all around the room. I do all my drum tracks first. That’s the one connection that I have to the old, analog way of doing things. I bring that home, feed it into the computer, start building it up.

I would imagine that neighbors in New York City would not be crazy about somebody whacking away on a drum set.

It’s funny you mention that because I built this wooden box with a speaker inside, lined with soundproofing foam and a microphone so that I can blast a real tube amplifier. The box cut down the volume by about 70 percent. We haven’t had any knocks on the walls yet.

Was there a song on this new album that kind of showed you the thematic direction of the record?

This started out entirely different. I was going to try and find a melodic place between the Beatles and The Byrds and the more bluesy rock of the Stones and The Animals. I wanted to try and find a middle ground between those. But, then, what happens when I’m working on a project is that I just start writing more songs. I started writing more melodic pop songs than the other style. I realized that the bluesier ones, which I had written for the band that I play drums in, the Doughboys, I’d keep separate. The first 12 songs make up Pop Circles and they’re mostly melodic pop. Then tracks 13-17 is an EP that we attached to the same disc. Thematically, there’s the first song, “Guess You Had To Be There,” which was trying to evoke what it was like. It’s a futile argument to convince somebody that the ‘60s were a great time or what it was like. If they weren’t there they’ll never really get it. The rest are defiant love songs.

Defiant love songs?

They’re about being at one with your partner. In this case it’s my wife Nancy and I against the rest of the world. Holding our ground. Holding on to the things that we believe in. Not retreating. Not surrendering.

I had a writing teacher who said that everything should be about love on some level.

Bob Dylan certainly opened the door for other topics in rock songs other than love and yet he wrote a lot of great love songs. He keeps coming back to that theme as well. I’ve found that, the longer I’ve been around, the more I can draw on as far as the ups and downs of romances and love. You get insights into things you didn’t have when you were young. When I’m thinking about the lyrics, I can draw on a couple of different experiences. I can make them an amalgam of a few break ups that I’ve had. Some are just out-and-out love songs that are directed toward my wife. But I harken back to being dumped several times. It certainly was helpful for lyric writing.

Do you have the answer for sustaining a relationship for those who maybe haven’t entirely figured it out?

I was extremely fortunate to find Nancy. There’s a combination of having many things in common. But I think the things we don’t share keeps things interesting. We both have a great love of music but we don’t share all the same bands. She likes to read novels, one after another, I’m more of a nonfiction person.

I think it’s also important to be respectful of those differences.

Absolutely.

Do you read a lot of history? Science?

I love American history. I was a huge Civil War buff. Still am. I also love biographies. I just finished reading Roger Daltry’s autobiography, which I highly recommend.

I have not read that yet.

It was a gift. It was not something I would have thought to read myself. I started to read it and couldn’t put it down. I’ve read a lot of autobiographies and his is by far one of the best.

He was certainly coming of age in the aftermath of World War II.

He talks a lot about walking around all the bombed out buildings. He has this way of writing that’s very natural and very British. You can almost hear him speaking the words as you read it.

Let’s talk about The Doughboys record.

We’d put five CDs out already and those were mostly of original material. I wrote a certain percentage of the songs and Mike Scavone and Gar Francis wrote a bunch. I think Mike had the idea to do a covers record. We started with a few that were in the live repertoire. I wanted to do some off-the-wall ones, like Lambert, Hendricks & Ross’ “Moanin’.” And Neil Diamond’s “Solitary Man,” Mose Allison’s “Your Mind Is On Vacation.” There’s a couple of other garage rock staples in there.

As a fan of The Band, I was very pleased with “The Shape I’m In.”

We usually start our sets off these days with that. It’s a great song and it’s fun to do a little bit of the Levon Helm thing on the drums but change it around to fit out style.

It kicks. I thought, “Wow, this is rockin!”

The Band’s recorded version was fine, but their live versions were something else. That’s where we got the inspiration from. We took it from there and made it a little more garage rock.

Did you ever get to see The Band?

They were amazing live. They were one of those bands that sounded almost exactly like the records. Just turned up loud with more excitement. Very visual. Had a great stage presence. I saw everybody from the ‘60s. You name ‘em, I’ve seen ‘em.

Did you go to Woodstock?

I did not. Two weeks before Woodstock, there was a festival down in New Jersey, The Atlantic City Pop Festival. I went to that and a lot of the people who were going to be at Woodstock were there. I was burned out on sitting in the sun for 12-hours a day for three days and didn’t want to do it again! I saw pretty much all the major groups that played Woodstock on different occasions. I saw the Who many times. I saw their very first appearance in America. I saw The Beatles in ’64. Jimi Hendrix. Everybody.

What are the things that you’ve lived through in your lifetime that make you say, “Wow! I lived through that”?

I gotta go back to the JFK assassination. That was probably the first real jolt of reality. RFK, Martin Luther King, Jr. All the turmoil. Everybody thinks about all the hippies. There was a war, race riots. I was blocks away from the Twin Towers on 9/11. We dealt with the smoke and the smells coming through our window. That was unbelievably traumatic. But I can’t say too much about the arrival of the Beatles. That was like an alien ship had arrived from another planet. It’s hard to convey that now. It really was transforming.

I talked to the owner of a music shop who described the shift between 1963 and 1964. One year he was signing kids up for accordion lessons, the next everyone wanted guitars.

I was 12 years old when the Beatles hit, so I was just ripe for that. I’d already been playing drums for years at that point and had a drum set. I was into big band jazz and trying to play like Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa. After the Beatles, I thought, “This is where I can take this. I saw Ringo and said, “Oh my God.”

I had my drums set up in the attic at our house. The night the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan, I went up there and sat behind the drums. I couldn’t play them because it was too late but I was too riled up. But I sat there and just lightly tapped on the snare.

Amazing. I want to thank you for your time.

Yeah, say hello to Pete and Trudy Campbell for me!

Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.