I think it’s a fascinating and candid view into the development/background of one of the most successful groups of that era. The discussion ranges from Busoni to the Beatles, Stravinsky to XTC, teaching composition at a University, writing the music for an iconic 80’s crime drama, and leading a jazz quartet as well! It certainly puts the exclamation point on my closing from that first post:
“So, I guess my hunches about this group so many years ago were fairly good; in fact, I’m quite sure that I may now actually know what a Wang Chung is…”
1. Wang Chung Muso Fans
ASF: Since the original blog post, I’ve heard from professional musicians all across the US and Canada who are (as I discovered) also Wang Chung fans. One jazz pianist told me that when he drives to gigs with other players, Wang Chung is always on the CD player. Does that surprise you?
JH: I am flattered! When we signed to Geffen and we were looking for a producer for our first album with them, Gary Katz, Steely Dan’s producer, was suggested and we met him in NYC. There was a sense at that time that we had an affinity with Steely Dan which I found interesting. I guess the first Huang Chung album had quite a distinct sound which, looking back at it, came from blending classic English 60’s/70’s pop + punk with Stravinsky and neo-Classical 20th Century music. This wasn’t a conscious thing, but I was always into creating hybrids, as was Nick, and I guess you could hear this as “jazzy” even though I was not interested in jazz per se at that time.
What do you think has made the group so appealing to average listeners and professional musicians at the same time? That’s an unusual combination that very few popular music groups achieve, especially those with era-defining mega-hits like you’ve had.
I think that Nick and I cover quite a lot of ground musically speaking and I think we’ve always tried to play it down the line between art-rock and pop-rock. Everybody Have Fun being a good example of out-and-out commercial opportunism in many ways, but hopefully the people who who had any regard for our previous work would smile at the piles of chords and ridiculously elongated melody of the middle 8–I always hoped that was a nod and a wink that we hadn’t given up on slipping the “other” stuff through!
2. Devoted Friends Melody
In the blog post, I thought it might have been you and Nick having a chuckle by sneaking this subversive little line into a tune for Geffen records. I still smile every time I hear it–it’s fun to hear that level of dissonance in a pop tune melody. Can you tell us how that melody from the beginning of the verse of Devoted Friends was written and how that came about?
I’m not sure how we arrived at it, but I’ve always loved melodies in pop that explore dissonance–two examples that I sometimes play to my students are “As You Said” by Cream from Wheels of Fire and “Another Satellite” by XTC from Skylarking. They both use unresolved tritones in the melody/harmony. There is also “Blue Jay Way” from Magical Mystery Tour, which I’ve always loved, and the scale of that melody is similar to Devoted Friends now I think about it. Nick was/is a big Zappa/Beefheart fan so he had a good sense of harmonic dissonance as color–I think my approach is more structural, but we both enjoyed stretching the territory. I think “As You Said”, in particular, helped develop my ear in hearing chromatic distinctions of major/minor and tritone relationships within a tonal context. At university I enjoyed the “false relations” in Purcell and other Baroque composers and started to really get the Stravinsky thing of playing with major/minor relationships to create a bittersweet experience for the listener.
3. Big World and Dancing
How did the reference to “Dancing” in “Big World” come about? Who sang the “Dancing” background lyric in Big World?
I’m a huge fan of the extended fade out on Hey Jude–I think that is a masterpiece. Also of “All You Need is Love” recapitulating “She Loves You” – and that’s where the cue for quoting “Dancing” came from. I loved that sense of calling out from another song across an expanse of time.
I sang the Dancing lyric. I saw “Big World” as valedictory and that it would be our last tune for a long time and I wanted to complete the circle, as it were, by calling back to our first album.
The chord progression in the Big World ending vamp is striking and quite effective. I commented that I don’t think I’d ever heard it in pop music before. How did you come up with that?
The chord sequence just arrived… I am completely intuitive when I write and I rarely try to figure things out. It’s only later that I like to look back and see what I was doing! I liked how that chord sequence could be extended and the extension uses the same chords as the outro of “Dancing” where it goes D/F#, Dm/F, E7, A7sus4 – so “Big World” quotes it musically as well as just quoting the little melodic fragment and that was part of the original composition. The melody line and lyrics over the outro were added later – I always wish we’d left that out and stuck with the Big World harmonies and the ad libs… but it’s not a perfect world, just a big one!
While we are talking about “Big World” musician-to-musician, as it were, the melody of the verse is lifted from Busoni’s 2nd Violin Sonata! Not an obvious source for pop tunes, but I was very into Busoni’s music at the time and that is a very beautiful piece.
(Here are some examples from the Busoni Sonata referenced.)
Strangely enough, Busoni’s Violin Sonata #2 in E minor is itself based on a Bach Chorale!
Some more from the Busoni Sonata, with the thematic material in 4-part chorale style in the piano.
4. Everybody Have Fun Tonight
Did the background singer sing that line “Can You Tell me What a Wang Chung is” on his own, or did you ask him to do that? It’s very funny to hear that even today.
Pure Ad Lib!
We always hear about groups getting shafted by the record company and not reaping the profits from their first big hits. In the blog, I said “I’m sure [the royalties from these hit tunes] paid the bills for decades, and are maybe even still paying the bills today.” How did the group navigate the treacherous waters of the music industry during that time? (If it’s not too personal, did those tunes set you up financially enough to remain independent?)
We were very fortunate to have an excellent manager–David Massey, who now runs Mercury Records in NYC–who was scrupulously honest and set things up so that the money came to us over the long term. I think, in the early 80’s, it was the ideal combination of publishers and labels being generous and decent about the deals, after the excesses of the 60’s and 70’s, (and of course there was plenty of money sloshing around) and managers seeing the Music Business as a proper business venture over the long term, not just an opportunity to grab some cash and run. So yes, those tunes still pay (most of) the bills.
Was it a surprise to you that this song became such a huge hit (perhaps THE defining tune of that era)?
It’s surprising, given that Nick and I were such outsiders in a way–but we were spending a lot of time in LA and we had all that was going on coursing through our veins… heads might be better! It was fun to be part of that time in LA, mid-80’s.
An old friend of mine from Windsor commented on the bridge of this song (“On the edge of oblivion, and all the world is Babylon…a ship fools, sailing on”) which seems to be a negation of the “party time” message of the verse and chorus. He sang the song in a cover band, and said that he found it very ironic to be singing this bridge while people flailed about on the dance floor. Was that the intent?
It was intentional. Nick came up with the line, “Everybody have fun tonight” and played it to me at one of our regular writing sessions. I loved it (much to his surprise) but I always heard it as ironic, and the first version of the song that we demo’d was a slow Hey Jude-type ballad with a long outro! You can hear it on our first Greatest Hits compilation. But when we worked on it in the studio with Peter Wolf – Peter doesn’t do irony, so it came out as we now know it. The middle 8 was taken from what used to be the long end section on the demo, so we snuck in the contrary point of view. The video also reflects this double-edge, with the supposedly daft pop tune and us singing very seriously.
I wasn’t aware until recently that you teach composition at Christ Church University in Canterbury. That’s also quite unique for someone with your background as an international pop star. Would you talk about your experiences as a teacher of composition?
I started teaching about eight years ago to get myself out of the house! Being a writer can be a very isolated condition. I met a guy who was starting up the commercial music course here in Canterbury and began doing just a couple of hours a week. He asked if I would teach guitar, but I don’t like teaching guitar so I said, how about Songwriting? That seemed like a more philosophical subject to me that would encourage a creative approach to music rather than the inevitable grade-exam structure that would come with instrumental teaching. Also, guitarists like such awful music!! Now I teach 10 hours per week covering all 3 years of the degree course – so its not like I’m full time, but I wrote my part of the course and I feel like I contribute a good amount to the students’ experience here. And I learn a huge amount from them.
What are the students like?
The students are all interesting with some talented songwriters amongst them. There is a guy in the 3rd Year called James Davies who is an excellent writer and does great recordings of his work: there is a band in the 2nd year called Fishtank who are exceptional. A few ex-students are out there making their mark in the business. Funke and the 2-Tone Baby gig regularly here and in London and he is promoting a new album. Two of the members of a local band called Syd Arthur studied with me and they have a new album which is very good– part of the new Canterbury scene which relates back to the 70’s bands like Caravan, Soft Machine, Hatfield and the North and all that great stuff.
Can composition be “taught”?
It can be encouraged and, if you have someone who is talented, you can expand their horizons. I preface my course with the proviso that I can’t teach you how to write a great song, but I can give you a methodology so that, if there is a song inside you, it will come out, and I believe everybody has a song inside them somewhere. I believe music should be taught as a creative, arts subject, not just jumping through hoops by getting grades and being proficient on an instrument. That’s good for some people, but the majority will never be concert-level players so they should be free to explore creative possibilities in music. At that point, song writing is at least therapeutic and a way of developing your appreciation of music and at best it becomes a way of life!
6. Influences and Interests
What artists and styles do you listen to today?
The teaching helps me to be aware of more recent artists and bands through the students bringing me stuff to listen to. I’m a big Radiohead fan, I like Jon Hopkins – his album Insides is very beautiful, and I’m a big fan of a New York based band called The Books. I like some of the Lana Del Ray album very much and I’m a big DJ Shadow fan and think his new album has some brilliant moments, a bit of a return to form.
I’ve been listening to Robert Wyatt a lot recently – I’ve been analysing Sea Song with my students in his version and in a version by The Unthanks. I saw them just before Christmas doing a gig where they played a set of music by Anthony and The Johnsons and then a second set of Robert’s songs – fabulous music making.
I listen to jazz – Miles Davis – all periods, but especially 1967 – 75, Coltrane, Monk, Mingus, Ornette and all the classic late 40’s to mid 70’s stuff. Modern guys: I like Brad Mehldau – Largo was a very important record for me – The Bad Plus, Polar Bear, Wynton Marsalis’ small group projects. Evan Parker lives near me and we meet at gigs and parties occasionally – I’m in awe of him so I never say much… I’m not a fan of Metheny (although I quite like some of his 80’s album with Ornette) and Keith Jarrett and what I consider to be soft jazz. I don’t like the emotional space that it exists in, too sentimental for me, much as I concede that these guys are phenomenal players.
And I listen a lot to Classical stuff. I love Mozart more than Bach… if that gives you a pointer: there is a new recording of the Berg Violin Concero by Isabelle Faust and Claudio Abbaddo and I’m listening to that a lot. I’ve loved the piece since I heard it at University, but it is such a deep, dark piece that I periodically go back to it – I’ve been studying the score and playing it very slowly at the piano. I love, J. S. Bach (and C. P. E.), Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wagner, Mahler, Bruckner, Debussy, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovitch. The Viennese guys like Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, Schreker and Zemlinsky, Johannes Strauss and his team, moderns like Boulez, Stockhausen and especially Lucian Berio. Getting into Wolfgang Rihm, I love Steve Reich, struggle with Philip Glass but like some of it. And, these days, I love Italian opera – Verdi, Bellini, Donizetti – less keen on Puccini.
What groups influenced you as you were developing when you were a teenager?
The Beatles above all, but The Kinks, Small Faces, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys when I was very young: then Cream, Hendrix, Pink Floyd and onto prog bands like Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, Led Zep–I consider them a prog band. Little Feat were very important as were Todd Rundgren’s 70’s solo albums, CSN&Y, Neil Young & Steve Stills solo, and Joni Mitchell – Bob Dylan is very important to me now but it wasn’t until I got into jazz that I really appreciated Dylan – and that is to do with the spontaneity in his recordings, rather than any stylistic considerations. David Bowie was very important in my late teens and went onto be the link to art-rock bands like Television, Talking Heads, XTC and punks like The Ramones, Sex Pistols, Clash who I saw as art-school bands rather than social revolutionaries.
Someone commented that the lyrics from “Even If You Dream Of Him” are a little strange, particularly “I wish I was your brother, even if you dream of him.” What does that mean, (or is it just a good rhyme)? How important are lyrics in your writing?
Hmmm… lyrics are difficult for me, usually. This particular example is just a rhyme (not a particularly good one…), but I like the brother/sister relationship. I have one brother, no sisters, but I see the close relationship between my 2 boys and my daughter–they are very protective of her and I like that.
I side with the approach where the words are there more for their sound than their meaning. I nearly always write the harmony, rhythm and melodies before the words. Not always, but mostly. I don’t need to “understand” lyrics to like a song and I prefer an impressionistic approach rather than narrative. I admire great lyricists like Bob and Joni Mitchell but it’s always the music for me. I like some of my lyrics – To Live and Die in LA, The Flat Horizon are pretty good, even Dance Hall Days but I would not expect to win accolades as a lyricist.
One of the comments mentions your exceptional singing skills. Did you study voice formally at some time?
Thanks for the compliment. I never studied singing, apart from some lessons a couple of years ago, when we started gigging again, to get me to some sort of match fitness. I’m much more interested in singing than I used to be–I’m a big Elvis fan these days. I love the way he sings – so musical and always in tune and perfectly phrased.
9. To Live and Die in L.A.
The soundtrack for this still very popular ’80s crime story is really outstanding–it’s hard to imagine the movie without the music you wrote for it. The title track is, in my opinion, a masterpiece of songwriting, and the acoustic version on your new EP “Abducted by the ’80s” provides another dimension to it, coming 25 years after it was originally recorded. What is remarkable to me is the marriage of music, lyrics, and mood that mirror the movie’s tragic theme (and L.A. in general). Could you talk about how that tune was written and recorded both in 1985 and how you chose it for re-release on the new EP?
Thank you for the high compliment. This story has been told before but, in case you don’t know, Bill Friedkin was in the editing stage with “To Live and Die” and was using “Wait” from our album “Points on the Curve” as a temp track. He decided he wanted to keep that track in the movie, but that the whole movie should have our sound. I was, of course, completely unaware of any of this when he called me up.
I was visiting a friend who I hadn’t seen since my university days (in London) and the phone in his apartment rang and he picked it up and then handed the phone to me and said, “It’s for you…”, with a puzzled look on his face. An American voice said, “Mr. Friedkin would like to speak to you in 20 minutes – will you still be at this number?”–there were no mobile phones in 1985… So my friend had to go out and teach and I stayed alone in his apartment and, after 20 minutes, the phone rang, and Mr. Friedkin and I had an hour long conversation about the movie and what he was doing and what he wanted. I remember him saying, “I want you to take your band in the studio and just jam for a couple of hours, then send me the music and I’ll edit it into the film.” I don’t think he realized “the band” was just me, Nick and a drum machine at that stage! Anyway I just said “yes” and thought, we’ll figure it out. I also remember him saying, “Whatever you do, don’t write me a song called “To Live and Die in LA”!
So we did the soundtrack music (in London, without seeing the movie at all… that’s another story…), sent off the reels of tape to LA–no internet to upload stuff. And waited to see what he thought. Fortunately, he loved it and flew me and Nick out to LA to see a rough cut. One of the most satisfying/exciting experiences of my professional career was sitting with Bill and Nick at Todd A. O. sound stage (which I think Billy owned at the time) watching the opening credits roll with “City of the Angels” playing very loud! The initial bass drum hit (which was heart-stoppingly loud) and the voices slowly glissandoing down against the storm-laden orange sky–seeing that for the first time was a real moment. Then the way that the music plays at almost the same tempo as the money printing machine–that was a complete coincidence (and great editing by Bill and his film editor). I was blown away by the movie, deeply affected by it and when I got back to London the song just came out. I worked on it with Nick and we demoed it and sent it to Billy, he loved it (which points to the way he would run with creative ideas when they were firing) and he insisted on shooting a whole new section of the movie–the prologue bit with the terrorist (very prescient) to accommodate the song.
As always, how it was written is hard to recall–it just sort of arrived. I remember our A&R guy at Geffen, John Kalodner being incredulous that the chorus was quieter than the verse. That made no sense to him! But he went with it – in those days they didn’t send you back to re-write it with some DJ haha.
The re-record was to explore the song without the constraints of 80’s production and to really push the idea that the chorus is a lot slower paced than the verse–sorry John! So the final choruses are very slow and allow for more vocal expression and more emotion. We have been playing it live in that arrangement and it works very well.
Any plans for future soundtracks or movie composition?
My son Jack is an actor–Jack Ryder. (My real name is Jeremy Ryder, Jack Hues being a somewhat obscure stage name – J’accuse/Jack Hues, another long story… ) Anyway, Jack was a big star here in the UK in a BBC soap called East-Enders. That was all back in 1998 – 2002. Since then he has done a lot of theatre acting and more recently has been directing. At Christmas 2010, he shot a short film that he wrote and directed called “Act of Memory: A Christmas Story” and I wrote and recorded the music for him once he had edited the movie. I was deeply touched that he trusted his old dad to do it and it was really fun working on it with him. The movie is very quiet, almost a silent film, and we opted to use just a piano for the composed parts of the soundtrack.
Jack sent it out to various film festivals – it was shown a couple of weeks ago at the Garden State Film Festival in New Jersey. He has screenings in Newport CA, the Flickers Rhode Island Film Festival (which is an Oscar qualifier!) and he has been selected for the Short Film Corner at Cannes. All very exciting and unexpected, although it is a very fine little movie.
10. Abducted by the ’80s
It was great to see a new release from Wang Chung after such a long hiatus. The EP features new mixes of some of your biggest hits as well as some new songs. Can you tell us how this new EP came about?
Nick and I got to a place where we wanted to work together again–that’s the most important thing. Then there were opportunities around our publishing and our back-catalogue that sort of threw us together again. I write all the time so there was a back-log of songs to draw on and Nick did some writing too having worked more in the A&R world for many years.
When my daughter was at University she went to see a poet called Rob Gee doing his act. He did a poem called “Abducted by the 80’s”, she bought a copy of a recording of it for me, as she thought I’d be amused, and I started to mess around with the recording and a piece I was writing at the time which used a sort of (Steve) Reich-ian systemic approach. I based it on his “Music for Mallet Instruments, Female Voices and Organ”. I played it to Nick who loved it and said, with his A&R instincts, “There is a great song in there… somewhere!”. We created a song out of it – the 2 versions will hopefully be on the new album when it finally comes out.
The EP was a sort of taster, testing the water and a way of making the project more manageable.
[Jack’s daughter, Violet Ryder, is an accomplished actress and singer. Listen to their version of The Beatle’s “I Want To Hold Your Hand.”]
Wang Chung is remarkably consistent in terms of quality of work, and this new EP is no exception. The music is very different from your earlier recordings, and yet, it still sounds like Wang Chung. “Star Gazing” stands out as another masterful piece of songwriting, as does the impossibly catchy chorus to “Rent Free.” Were you writing this kind of music prior to the recording project, or did the recording project spur you to start writing WC music again?
Once again, thank you. We did have a think about what Wang Chung would sound like in the 21st Century and consciously used the 80’s thing of Synths, Guitars and drumbox as a sound palette. I have released my two “jazz” albums in the interim which are quite different although I can hear the thread of similar ideas that connect The-Quartet and Wang Chung. I agree with the notion that as a composer you write the same 3 or 4 pieces over and over again.
When can we look forward to the full album from these sessions to be available?
I hope it will be out at the end of this year or early next year as a full album, but we’ll be releasing new stuff in the meantime through our website: www.wangchung.com
11. Music Theory
One of the things I really find compelling in your music is the abundance of surprising transitions (bridges/interludes) that are in remote keys. How big a role does Music Theory play in your writing?
Music Theory is good at explaining what has already happened, but serves no purpose in creating what is going to happen. People who think that understanding music theory will make them a better musician are putting the cart before the horse, in my opinion. But, to the extent that Music Theory means studying Classical Music I think it is a good thing and I think that listening to more complex music is good for training your ear to hear finer degrees of consonance/dissonance. Music theory can help you navigate those deep waters, but you have to be able to feel it first, then look to see how it is done. So, to answer the question–I compose intuitively and I try not to “figure out” what I am doing until I’ve done it, therefore Music Theory does not play a big part in my writing. But… I wouldn’t write as I do without the exposure to Music Theory that I had from a young age.
How important do you think it is for young musicians coming up to have a grasp of music theory and music history?
I think it is very important. The old Rock ‘n’ Roll adage of, “I don’t know what I’m doing and, if I did, I wouldn’t be able to do it anymore”, is rubbish and frankly disguises a lot of complacency and explains why so many Rock musicians fall back into mediocre recycling of things they did much better years ago. Once the froth and spark of one’s initial engagement with music has cooled, once it is no longer all new for you, it is your intellect that carries you forward into new territory, new questions, new points of view and I think engaging with music in all its manifestations – the different genres, theory, history, biographies, etc. is absolutely essential.
Are there any classical composers or theorists that have influenced your writing?
Absolutely. All those composers on the list of what I listen to have influenced me, but I would single out Schubert for his ability to turn on a dime with modulations, Stravinsky for harmonic “sharpness” is the adjective I would use, and a fresh, witty approach to the music of the past.
It’s hard to be sure that it is a bone fide “influence”, but I think listening to a Beethoven or Mozart piano sonata, or symphony, or string quartet from beginning to end helps develop a sense of long-term harmonic centre. You start to feel that sense of proportion and tension/resolution over the long term. So in a song you can feel the sense of home key, even if you have left it behind. You get this in Brian Wilson songs–“God Only Knows”, and Beatles songs–endless examples, but “A Day in the Life” is a dramatic one. But I think Classical composers really think in 3D about harmonic journeys and, once you get over the stylistic barriers and start to hear it as just “Music” –well then you are off on a lifetime’s quest to experience it all. I say experience, rather than understand, because I don’t know if I will ever understand it, but I want to experience it all.
12. Music Business
In between the new EP and your last studio album, the music business was heavily changed by the advent of a wide variety of technologies–internet, MP3s, inexpensive recording technologies, file-sharing, etc. From your perspective, how has the industry changed?
Computers and the internet have changed the music industry as they have changed society. In a way everything is as entrenched as it has always been, but there is more information masquerading as knowledge, more chatter pretending to be conversation, more noise generally, so that it is hard to see a cutting edge. The consumer consumes, the audience takes the stage…
Music was/is always technology-led, whether it be the invention of the violin, or piano, or radio, magnetic tape, electric guitars, or MTV. Composers and performers are also defined by their economic relationships with those who pay for their work. The rise of the PC revolutionized the technology of recording, but the internet has taken the means of music production and distribution out of the closed world of record companies and placed it in the hands of anyone who fancies having a go. Making a recording is now like taking a photograph–anybody can do it, which is simultaneously great and… not great. However, writing a song is still a challenge of imagination and writing a great song is something miraculous, however internet savvy you may or may not be. As always, there are plenty of people who exploit the medium without much concern for the message, but there are still those who create great work.
How do you advise young musicians who are just now entering the field?
There are all sorts of ways to make a career in music from the extreme discipline of the classical virtuoso to the creative chancers who luck out with a one-hit-wonder. In my experience they are both passionate about music, love what they do, and can feel when it’s right. If you have that, then go out and play to people, listen (or don’t listen) to what they say and build a following for yourself. Study your instrument, listen to great artists, be obsessive about what you believe to be great and work towards writing your own music and songs. The creative independence that writing your own music brings allows you to define the progress of your career on your own terms. Also writing music is how you can make money, unless, of course, you are a phenomenal performer and/or re-creative musician. Be shrewd about how you interface with the music business. Ideally, get a business-oriented person that you trust to represent you BUT, don’t do things only for money–especially to begin with. Later on there are certain chances that present themselves that may necessitate compromise… believe me I’ve been there! If you earn money from being a musician then that’s great, but, if that is your main reason for getting into music, then you will be very unhappy.
The summer before last, I was sitting with David Massey who used to manage Wang Chung back in the day. David is a very successful record company executive and we were in his lovely New York apartment and he said, “You just keep showing up. That’s what I do, every day I go to the office, I do what I can, I don’t give up, I just keep showing up.” And that’s what I do. Don’t give up, just keep showing up.