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Interview: Willy DeVille – December 2007, Part One

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In mid December 2007 I received an e-mail from the editor of the German edition of Rolling Stone asking if I would be willing to re-work an interview I had conducted with Willy DeVille in April  2006 for a special section they were planning to run on Willy for the magazine's February issue. Willy and the Mink DeVille band were starting a mini-European tour in mid February to help promote his new CD Pistola and the article would tie in with it.

Well I wasn't about to say no to something like that, and I suggested that perhaps I should try and get in touch with Willy to bring things up to date – talk about the new CD, and anything else Willy felt like chatting about. By the time we had agreed on details it was Wednesday the 19th of December, and it turns out the world stops the Friday before Christmas so I had three days to get hold of a copy of the new CD, and set up an interview time with Willy.

So it was pretty hectic to say the least; figuring out the logistics of getting me a copy of the CD was the hardest part – seems couriers are busy at Christmas and nobody was going to guarantee an overnight delivery between New York City and Kingston Ontario. But something happened on the final Friday that made me think no matter what, this is going to work out just fine. A DVD of a tribute to Edith Piaf showed up in the mail for me to review – a DVD that had been produced by Willy's record company no less.

Willy with Guitar.jpgNow for those who don't know, Edith is pretty special to Willy; it was because of her that he ended up in Paris in 1980 recording Le Chat Blue and working with many of the same people she had worked with. A question I regret not asking him was what it was like for him to play at the Olympia in Paris – he recorded a live disc there – where Edith had ruled the stage for years.

Talk about synchronicity. An hour later the Fed Ex guy knocked at my door with a copy of Pistola. Sometimes you know the stars are shining on you and this was one of those times.

Now I was under strict instructions from Willy's wife Nina – who does her best to act as the business manager for a guy who loves to play rock and roll and in his own words: "I just want to focus on the art and the music right – that business stuff …" Well Nina wanted to make sure I got Willy to talk about the disc and the tour – and in our way we did.

But Willy's focus is so wide – like all the really true creative people I've ever met – he sees everything as being interconnected. But I had promised, so after Willy and I were done with the preliminaries – how you doing etc. it was time to get down to it.

Was there anything in particular that you were trying to express overall with the new CD Pistola?

I pretty much try to do the same thing each time out. I had some amazing teachers, older guys like Jack Nietzsche, and Dr. John who taught me about sound – and how important it is to create shades of sounds like colour. With all this sampling that's happening today there are all sorts of things you can make in the studio – but can you do it live? I want to make music that I want to buy and that I can play on stage that's note for note what's in the studio. But I also want it to grow, so that it's not always the same thing, but getting better each time.

The real secret to making an album is to know when to stop – you know that if you go back into the booth again it's going to kill the song – so you have to believe in what you've got.

It's like a painter knowing when to stop adding paint to a canvas – one more brush stroke would ruin it.

Yeah that's it – cause like I said it's colours – you set out to look for the next colour and that becomes kind of like the search for the Holy Grail.

What about the title for this disc, Pistola?

Well, I wanted it to sound like those old cowboy movies, ya know…

Yeah, it reminds me of the old spaghetti Westerns, where everybody is stretched long and thin….

Yeah that's it. Well there was one and it was called Pistolera; well, pistola is the feminine version of the word – and it's like for saying – hot as a pistol (he extends each syllable). Pis-to-la, the sound has that feel of the western and something hot too. An exciting sound, just like what I hope the music will be for people.

What's your process when it comes to a new disc – writing the material for example?

I'm always writing, I've got these two pads that I keep with me all the time; one's for drawing and the other's for writing things down. Sometimes it will be just a phrase that I hear that I like and want to store away to maybe pull out for later. The best time is right when I wake up and I might have had something come in the night, or I wake up with an idea and I write it down right away while it's still fresh.

You've got to constantly write though; it's like exercising the brain. If you don't do it all the time it will get soft and you'll have to start thinking about technique instead of knowing instinctively how to write. You want to be able just let the words create what you want, and not worry about the craft cause it will start to sound stilted if you do that.

But like I said it's also a matter of looking for the new sound – something that's fresh – but at the same time is still you. You've got to remember in a lot of ways rock and roll music is a lot like being in the business of creating illusions and you have to maintain that feeling of heightened reality – how real is it to pack a story into like three or four minutes when you think of it – but that's what we all do and it only works if you believe in what you're doing. It really does come down to what I said earlier about writing the songs that I want to hear."

Yeah, I get that – I try to write the stories I want to read. It sounds easy…

Yeah it does, doesn't it? (laughs) But you know I was having doubts about this one, until about the third song and then I was okay – cause really how do you ever know – it's so easy to get too close to the material that you can't have detachment- and it becomes an act of faith.

Phil Shenale produced Crow Jane Alley and other earlier stuff. What do you like about working with him as a producer?

We first worked together on Loup Garou, and what's great about Phil is he always hears the sound I want to create and knows how to bring out the best in me in the studio. He's not some hard ass or anything like that, yelling at you, but he keeps it together and makes it work.

Making an album is like giving birth in a lot of ways. You have this creation that you're responsible for and it's a wonderful feeling when its done, but there's the struggle that you go through to make sure that you bring the sound to life in just the right way. That's what Phil does you know. Because he knows what I want to create – he comes up with ideas that help make the sound right.

There was this one song – it was on Backstreets Of Desire I think, where he took a baby grand piano – a really good one, right, and took the lid off and played on the wires with drum sticks because he knew that was the way to get the sound we needed for the song. He doesn't say, this is what it has to sound like, or make it into his sound. It's all about finding the sound – or really knowing what I'm hearing inside my head almost, and helping me make it happen.

The musicians on the album, they're not the folk you'll be touring with, are they? But you've worked with some of them before, right?

Well, yeah – Phil of course plays keys on this one like he has for the last few. Brian Ray (Paul McCartney's guitar player) and I have worked together before on Backstreets Of Desire, and Josh Sklair was of Crow Jane Alley. The record companies make it hard though you know? I call up Phil and we try to figure out who's available and what's within the budget and all that …the guys did great stuff and I'm really happy with how everything turned out… [NOTE from Nina DeVille: Willy would love to make an album with the Mink DeVille band but for financial reasons on Pistola it wasn't possible – it's something that's long overdue though, and would make a great album because they know each other all so well.]

But the whole experience, the four weeks in Los Angeles, was really brutal. We were staying in this hotel where I guess everybody else staying there were going to Disneyland and Universal studios, and they all looked like they were trying so hard to have fun – especially the young kids – and it was a nightmare, man. They all dressed alike in their Lacoste shirts and pants with expensive sneakers, and they'd been told this was what fun was supposed to be so they were doing their best.

Now this is, sort of spooky, and I don't set much by it, but I gotta wonder… You know on the last album Crow Jane Alley I wrote that song about Muddy Waters gonna rise out of the Mississippi Mud and then boom Katrina happens, and the damn river doesn't just rise up? This time I've got that line in, "You Got The World In Your Hands": "Somebody set the hills on fire" right – and the next thing you know the hills around L.A. are up in flames…

I don't know, four weeks in LA – I had to promise Nina we wouldn't do the next one out there – There was this one night I couldn't sleep so I climbed up onto the roof to have a smoke and there was this young Scottish kid up there (does a really good Scottish accent) who says, "I couldn't sleep – I was having nightmares," and I was thinking, yeah I know what you mean. I ask the guys (the musicians he recorded with) how they can live out there all the time, and they said by keeping busy. I don't know…

(I can almost hear and see him shudder through the phone line and quickly jumped in with another question about Pistola. Nobody needs to get lost in nightmares about Los Angeles.)

On Pistola you did a bunch of different styles of music – country/folk to Native American – even one reggae tinged number. Were you deliberate in your choices of style or did it just sort of happen.

It's a little bit of both right, you know. The arrangement has to fit the song, so the text and the music together have to be believable. "Been There Done That" is really more New Orleans then reggae – the base line is probably what made you think of it as reggae – but you know what Marley said – it was from listening to music out of New Orleans on bad radios that gave them reggae, cause all they heard was the off beat… Anyway it's the text that's I always focus on – sort of like the way Leonard Cohen or Jacques Brel work, and then the music develops around that.

That's funny you mention Brel, because I've thought of you in terms of him before…

Yeah? Well you know I was thinking of recording (sing the opening bars of "Amsterdam") I love that stuff…I remember the first time I went over to Europe, for Le Chat Blue, and everybody being so surprised that I really dug Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel…but it's great music you know.

This is the end of part one of my December 2007 interview with Willy DeVille. Be sure to read part two.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
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