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Interview: Pianist/Composer David Lanz – An In-Depth Look at Liverpool: Re-Imagining the Beatles

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David Lanz has been a preeminent force in New Age music for nearly thirty years. When Billboard magazine introduced the New Age album chart in 1988, Lanz’s Cristofori’s Dream was its first number one. It remained in the top position for twenty-seven weeks. Since then Lanz has been a mainstay of the New Age chart, as well as crossing over occasionally into the Contemporary Jazz chart.

His 2000 album East Of the Moon received a Grammy nomination for Best New Age Album. Somewhat uncomfortable with being pigeonholed as New Age, an invented category that means nothing in musical terms, Lanz’s music transcends cliches by virtue of its strong melodicism and harmonic richness.

Most recently, Lanz has been exploring the songwriting of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. His latest release is Liverpool: Re-Imagining the Beatles, an album full of new instrumental arrangements of Beatles classics that accomplishes an impressive feat. The spirit of the Beatles’ originals is retained while Lanz (and the musicians he assembled for the project) explore the nooks and crannies within the compositions. No possibility is left unexplored as the songs are reharmonized, sometimes joined together in surprising medleys. The resulting music is both familiar and new. Recently I had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Lanz about the album’s creation.

What can you share about the genesis of the Liverpool album?

The jumping off point was thanks to my friend Gary Stroutsos, the flute player [on the album]. He did a recording of George Harrison’s “Within You Without You” in 2009. He’d been watching what I had done, I had a break with “Whiter Shade of Pale” back in the ’80s. And I did some other English covers, so he’d been wondering if – in his world of ambient and world music – if there was a piece of music that had a hook. Because Gary’s stuff is meditative, not melody driven. He finally landed on “Within You Without You,” which I thought was the perfect piece of music for him.

He called me in and I helped him arrange the piece. In the process of doing this track, which we ended up doing with Walter Gray on cello and David Revelli on percussion – both of whom ended up playing on the Liverpool record – initially I was thinking Gary should look at some other songs. But I kind of picked the ball up and started playing through some of my favorite Beatles tracks. Before I knew it I had painted myself into a corner of, “Okay, I guess it’s time for me to do a Beatles tribute record.” I hate that word, “tribute.” But that’s where it started, with that “Within You Without You” session. Then I went deep into the Beatles record catalog and tried to imagine which pieces I wanted to put together to take a unique approach to covering the Beatles.

That must have been a tough process, narrowing down their entire catalog. How did you choose the songs?

Well, I had my own personal list. I’m kind of like a sponge, if I’m around other people I listen to what everyone says and think things through. My brother Gary Lanz, who was producing the record, was always a fan of the song “Rain.” I never really thought it was that great of a song. I like it but as a record I like the other side, “Paperback Writer,” better. But I thought, it’s a really neat melody. So I thought of it more as a tribute to my brother, seeing if I could arrange that piece.

But just because I tried something didn’t mean it would end up on the record. I have hours of failed attempts. Some things might come up again, because we’re working on a kind of encore to Liverpool. We’ve been playing some songs live, “I Am the Walrus” and “Here Comes the Sun” are definitely on the new Liverpool record. So I just picked my favorites and Gary would say, “How about this one, how about that one?” Part of it needed to be how it laid on the piano. And as far as working with Gary Stroutsos, he only used that one bamboo xiao flute. We had some limitations with in terms of the various modes and keys that he could play in. So I was trying to arrange the songs based on how they sounded with the piano and the xiao. I knew that would be the core of the sound, at least the melody and how it was projected.

“Lovely Rita” is the only solo piano piece. Was it always intended to be?

I was sitting one night thinking about the record. I thought I was all done with the arrangements. But I heard a little voice, a little muse saying, “You need one more song.” So I reached down and grabbed the first CD off the pile. And the first song I saw was “Lovely Rita,” which was never one of my big favorites. But I started playing around with the song and I had so much fun with it, it ended up being on the record as the solo piano piece. The rest of the stuff was more of months of listening and trying things out to see what would fit.

The final tracklist is dominated by Lennon songs, with only a couple McCartney tunes. Was that by design or just how it worked out?

It just went in that direction. I felt those songs for me were more compelling. McCartney, of course, his stuff is so cool. But I was going for stuff more like “Because,” “I’m Only Sleeping,” “Yes It Is” – they have more of an introspective vibe.

I think the album takes a more interesting route by mostly avoiding the big, iconic hit songs.

I thought so too. I even did an arrangement of “Yesterday” and some of the more recognizable pieces, but in the final analysis I thought it would be a little more of an inside view. I have a good friend, James Reynolds – he’s part of the production team, a real heavy synth programmer. He was off in Europe somewhere I told him about the project and he said, “Hey good idea man, I bet these are the songs you’re going to do.” And he sent me this list of titles – he didn’t get one of them right! He was just assuming because of the piano and my style… That kind of made me feel good. It was like, if I pulled the wool over on my friend like that, it’s a good indication that the project is going the right direction.

In a few cases, you paired up different songs in an interesting way. How did you decide which songs to put together as medleys?

“Rain” and “Eight Days a Week,” I had actually arranged both those songs separately, but “Eight Days a Week” I wasn’t really digging. But I really liked the bridge of that piece, the way it worked on the piano. Both the songs ended up being in the same key, because I was thinking about the flute and such. So at that point I just had the idea to combine them and I lucked out.

What about the concluding medley? What’s the story behind those three choices?

With “London Skies,” the Lennon suite, I wanted to initially do “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Across the Universe” but that took quite of bit of messing around. When I got together with Gary, he could play “Tomorrow” but he wasn’t able to play “Universe” in the key I originally arranged it, so it didn’t work. I ended up creating some musical connective pieces because I had to change keys. It ended up being more sonically interesting.

I view everything as a creative challenge. Sometimes a problem ends up being a blessing because it takes you somewhere you wouldn’t have gone if you were strictly left to your own devices. I knew that the Lennon suite would end the record, so I wanted to find kind of a last note, a way to tie it all up. So I tired a number of different songs before deciding on “Give Peace a Chance.” We were trying “It’s Only Love” and then the engineer thought it would be cool to end on the final line from “The End.” But “Give Peace a Chance” was more centered to my own view of Lennon as more of a spiritual guru.

When he died, it was like losing our savior. Every time they do an overview of Lennon and his life, I still get choked up. I never really quite processed that someone could just walk up and take him out. Especially someone so iconic that meant so much to so many people, almost like taking out one of our spiritual leaders. And Lennon was so far beyond a political leader, because he represented a philosophy to create a more peaceful planet. And he was an artist. So that’s why I thought “Give Peace a Chance” would be a cool way to end the record. I’m used to leaving people in more altered state anyway on my records, so that kind of fits into my “New Age” persona too.

How has your specific fanbase reaction been to the album?

I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, but so far folks have had a really amazing response. Everyone seems to kind of get it, which is really cool and doesn’t always happen. They get the fact that this is the Beatles, but it’s really not what you expect it to be. It’s not a cheesy kind of, “we’re in Safeway” kind of music. So far what I’ve heard from fans has been really positive.

Back in 1998, part of this was motivated by my manager’s input at that time, I did a record called Songs From an English Garden. It was the last record I owed to my record label at the time. My manager didn’t want me to give them any more of my publishing. They had all my publishing wrapped up, and he was really anti that. So he said, “Why don’t you give them an album of covers?” So that’s where that record came from.

It did pretty well sales-wise, but it garnered mixed reviews. Some reviewers were really appalled that I was trying to do The Kinks, The Beatles, The Stones in kind of a easy listening, “heavy mellow” kind of fashion. So I got some flacks from a few folks that really didn’t get it. So far Liverpool seems to have been received fairly evenly amongst reviewers and fans. Which is a good thing, because I’m working on another one. [Laughs] Which is going to be a little more diverse, not only The Beatles. I just finished an arrangement of “Mellow Yellow” that’s really fun, which I’m calling “Heavy Mellow Yellow.” I don’t know if it’s going to end up being a length album or an EP. But it’s going to be part two of Liverpool. Then I’m going to have to just get off this Beatles thing and get back to reality. [Laughs]

You’ve spoken before about New Age not being a musical term, and not necessarily being the best fit to describe your work. How would you describe your music to someone unfamiliar with it?

Well that’s why I use the term, “heavy mellow.” It’s a joke, but it’s also totally serious. Because while the music is very relaxing, it tends to take people pretty deep emotionally. People would be surprised by the letters I get from fans, it’s pretty touching. They kind of have a soul interaction with the music. Just surface wise, you could call it neo-classical pop. It definitely has classical overtones, but I’m very aware of the melody and I don’t write twenty minute suites. Generally speaking, everything is usually wrapped up in three to five minutes. When I first started delving into this stuff in the ’80s, I called it “zen pop.” [Laughs]

It is kind of a bugaboo because the whole New Age thing kind of got slammed. And unfortunately I was the one chosen to take the brunt of it because I had the first number one New Age album on Billboard. But the song I wrote, “Cristofori’s Dream,” was about a guy who lived in the 1700s and invented the harpsichord, definitely not a New Age figure. And then the song that crossed it over for me was “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” the hippie anthem from 1967. So if you just look a little deeper you’ll find out there weren’t any crystals or whales involved. There aren’t any pictures of spaceships on my records. Even though I love all that wacky stuff, it isn’t a part of my music.

How has the evolving marketplace changed the way you market your music?

When I used to put a record out with a record label, usually you’d get this big push. It made sense, because you had record stores everywhere. Half a dozen Tower Records in any major city. And at the time, you also had radio really blasting it out too. There wasn’t an internet, so everything was focused on radio and in-store promotion. For an artist like myself, they’d line me up with a dozen radio interviews and I would talk to all these different DJs and they’d play the record. There was kind of a concentrated effort.

What do you have planned for getting the new album out to a wider audience?

I’m getting ready to actually re-release Liverpool. I was able to line up a major distributor and they’re pretty excited about it. It’s a distributor that you’ve never heard of, they’re called ADA [Alternative Distribution Alliance]. They’re more of an inside industry label. They primarily do the alternative distribution for Warner Brothers. So they’re a big player in distributing what’s left of the mainstream.

It’s been interesting. It’s been kind of a slow process of getting the information out. There’s so much more music being released, the noise is so deafening on the internet with so much stuff. You wonder how anyone gets to anything anymore. I’ve been working almost a whole year on promoting this record, but there’s still a lot of people out there that probably would like it if they heard about it.

And there were some stumbling blocks to overcome in clearing the album for release, weren’t there?

Well, it took me almost seven months to get Sony/ATV to allow me to release the record. I was told we needed clearances specifically for those tracks where I combine songs. They call them interpolations. It took a long time because I’m sure they get a million requests. I was told that typically they refuse to allow interpolations, or medleys, of Beatle songs. Not exactly sure why. But long story short, I finally got their attention and they passed it through the office. It had to be signed off on by everyone in this particular Sony/ATV clearance office.

What’s the new release date for Liverpool?

I’ve been given a date of March 1st. My next move is to release a deluxe edition, which will include the DVD that we’ve created which is kind of a companion piece.

I’ve watched the DVD and enjoyed getting a behind the scenes look at the making of the album. I just wasn’t sure what your plans were for it, but that answers my question.

Yeah, I think people might be a little more excited if it’s offered as a little deluxe package. You don’t have to pay much extra to get the CD and DVD and the combination will make a nice overview to the whole project. Then I can get on with my life.

For more information about David Lanz, including where he and his Liverpool Trio will be performing selections from Liverpool: Re-Imagining the Beatles, please visit his official website. For a chance to win some great prizes, musicians can consider entering the David Lanz Liverpool Valentine Contest. For complete rules click the link, final day to enter is February 28th, 2011.

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About The Other Chad

Hi, I'm Chaz Lipp. An old co-worker of mine thought my name was Chad. Since we had two Chads working there at the time, I was "The Other Chad."