Exploring strange new musical worlds
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2005 Anil Prasad. All rights reserved.
Has Been, William Shatner’s first album in 36 years, successfully proves he’s anything but that. Co-written and produced by pianist/singer Ben Folds, the album takes the Star Trek legend’s singular spoken word approach and boldly goes into a variety of genres including pop, rock, trip-hop and spaghetti Western scores. Along for the ride is an all-star cast including vocalists Joe Jackson, Aimee Mann and Henry Rollins, guitarists Adrian Belew and Jon Auer, and bassist Sebastian Steinberg. It’s an engaging, infectious disc that’s light years ahead of The Transformed Man, Shatner’s unintentionally hilarious 1968 camp classic that merged pop tunes like “Mr. Tambourine Man” with classic literature such as “Theme from Cyrano.” In contrast, Has Been explores deeply personal topics, including Shatner’s views on love, family, death and creative rebirth. Plenty of humor also abounds, only this time he meant it to.
The new album has taken many by surprise. It’s an impressive, eclectic effort that truly stands up to repeat listening.
Thank God. You know, it’s like opening night. The curtain goes up and I wonder if I’m in a good play. I once had the experience of opening a play in Los Angeles that was supposed to go on to Broadway. As the actress and I stepped on to the apron in the darkness, she said to me “Are we in a disaster?” And as the lights went on and we started to do the play, we realized the answer was “yes.” [laughs] So, we don’t know what people are going to say. What I’m finding is people are saying the kinds of things you’re saying and it’s what we secretly think of it. Ben always says that too, but I don’t know. I don’t know the music world.
Tell me about the process of putting together the songs for the album.
When the Foos brothers [Shout Factory record label executives] wanted me to do another album and when Ben said he would produce it, I knew the mocking tone behind some of the playing of The Transformed Man’s songs would be remembered. I knew I was in a dangerous position of holding myself up to ridicule. So, with that in mind, I asked Ben “What’ll I write?” He said “Tell the truth.” Those were his exact words. I said “Yes, of course. As long as you stay in the truth, no-one can say anything. You’re on safe ground as an actor, performer and writer.” If you’re telling the truth without any phony attempts at jazzing it up in some way, you can’t go wrong. That’s the touchstone. And I used that in all the thoughts behind the songs and the selection of words behind the songs. I don’t know how to write songs. Ben said “Don’t worry about that. I’ll make them into music. You write what’s in your heart. Write the poetry and the ideas and I’ll make them into songs.” So, then I thought “Do I rhyme it in couplets? Do I try to find rhyming words? Does that discipline apply? What are the structures of writing a song?” We decided I would do without those rules. Rather, I would do it as I felt and he would take it from there. That’s what happened.
Once you realized you had that freedom, how did you go about crafting the lyrics?
I’d sit down and write a thought that I’ve had or used in other writings or something that’s just occurred to me. I’ll give you two examples. I’ve been near people dying. Parents and loved ones have died in my lifetime. I’ve become fascinated and in the throes of the idea of death and what happens. But that’s too heavy to put into a musical thing. So, I wanted to do it in a lighter way and attempted to do that with “You’ll Have Time.” Another instance is when I was once on my way to Nashville and read a tabloid in an airplane and I see the term “has been” referring to me. I’ve always gone off on that term. It’s such a stupid thing used by these stupid people as a pejorative. The truth of the matter is somebody’s been somebody and like a flower, you spring out, flower and then ultimately, the petals fall off one way or another in some time or another. It happens to all living things. To call a flower a has been is as idiotic as calling a great artist who hasn’t done anything in the last while a has been. So, I went off on that and it became the title of the album.
How did your work in the film arena inform your work on the album?
I didn’t want to write anything for this album that didn’t resonate in me. As a director of film, I know how intricate and intrinsic music is to a scene so that it supports it and brings anticipation and calls forth the possibility of the next scene. You can do all of that with music. You can enhance an ordinary scene to become something much more lush by the type of music you choose to surround the scene. I’m very much aware of what music can do to the words. I wanted to take this opportunity to express the words and have the music corroborate, collate and relate the meaning and tension of the words.
The album explores some very personal thoughts and experiences from your life. Tell me about your desire to provide such an introspective viewpoint to the general public.
I took a much smaller point of view than the general public. The people that I love—my family, wife and dearest friends—we don’t get into those conversations very much. It’s Monday night football, horses, cigars and stuff, and occasionally a phrase or paragraph of some kind of depth. A relationship is mainly built on resonances of that. You don’t go around talking about death as a subject too often. I wanted to tell those people that I loved how I felt about these things, what happened to me and what I thought of those things that happened to me. So, on these nine or 10 subjects—of which there are infinitely more—I wanted to express myself so they would know and perhaps remember what I said. It’s a kind of legacy and if the term “loved ones” incorporates people who listen to the album and like it or love it, then they become part of that family.
Do you think the album will help shake up people’s very fixed perceptions of who you are?
I’m all of those things. Nobody’s set in stone. Everything changes. Maybe their perceptions of me are right. Maybe they are incorrect. Whatever they are, Ben and I made this record and people will perceive what they perceive. This is a reflection of me and whatever perception they had prior to this is either enhanced or changed and that’s good.
Several of Has Been's songs have a very modern feel. Were you consciously reaching out to a younger audience?
How do you define who is a young person? Younger people can include three-year old children. They know the verities of life. They know what’s fair and what’s not fair. They know justice. They don’t know death because that concept hasn’t entered their minds, but they know love, affection and right and wrong. It’s hardwired into us. So, the subject matter is part of the universal human experience. Musically, if the rhythm section is more akin to what people are listening to know, that’s a good way of going. It’s a good thing that Ben did. He’s marvelously eclectic. But in fact, in melodic line and rhythm, he wasn’t appealing to a 25-year-old. He was appealing to people who love beautiful things, which includes melody and rhythm.
How did you go about working with Folds to shape the music?
As I wrote, he’d sit down at the piano and begin to noodle and sort of hum. He let the sound of the words become the music. As I allowed the words to permeate my thoughts, one word led to another. One rhyme led to another. Suddenly, the song was in front me and that’s the way I write. Ben was doing the same thing musically. He’d listen to the words and fiddle around on the piano. Then he called the musicians in and they would kind of say “What about this?” I’d never heard anything like it. I know that’s what happens in a studio. They come in and sit around and let things happen. I’ve always looked askance at that. It obviously takes a particular kind of brilliance to come in empty-handed to a studio and emerge sometime an hour or two weeks later and have a song that is unique, reflects the band’s talents and appeals to a large audience. How often does that happen? Often enough for it to be part of the mystique of a band going into the studio and emerging with an album. I am accustomed to working on the first draft, second draft and third draft before you make the movie. So, I had drafts of songs clutched in my hand. And when they said they’ll meet at 11 a.m., I was there at five to 11. The guys would wander in at the beginning around noon or one o’clock. They began to realize that my discipline was different from theirs and it kind of shook them. I think they learned something from me, just as I learned a great deal from them.
Take me through the making of “I Can’t Get Behind That” with Henry Rollins.
I can’t remember how I came up with the phrase “I can’t get behind that,” but I began to think of the things I can’t get behind. I wanted to go out on a laugh, so I wrote “I can’t get behind a fat ass.” I just began to jot down the things I can’t get behind and rhyme them. Then, after I had written that, Henry came in and became part of the song and fit in some of his lyrics—some of his “I can’t get behinds.” After we had evolved what he was going to say and what I was going to say, we looked at each other across two mics and began to do that jazz riffing. We were enclosed in the soundproof booth and outside, in another booth, was Matt Chamberlain going on the drums. Then we began to bring the rhythmic sections in. There was Chamberlain on the drums and he began to hear the rhythms of the words and I began to feed off his rhythms. He’d feed off of mine and it became a jazz riff of rhythm, only I was using words and he was using drums. Then they began to layer tracks of triangles. It was an incredible happening of rhythm. That thing is so rhythmically complex. It’s a great work of art.
What made you want to cover Pulp’s “Common People?”
Ben said “I know a song that would be perfect for you.” I said “Well, I haven’t heard it. You want to do a song I haven’t written?” And he kept insisting on it. Then I heard the song and realized what he had seen. There’s a part there. I could see a playwright coming to me and saying “I’ve got this guy who falls in love with this girl and this girl falls in love with him. She wants to be like him, but she’s a rich girl. She says ‘I want to be like you,’ but he realizes there’s this chasm between the two and that she can never be like him. It’s a one-act play I’m going to write.” And here it is summed up in a song. You can see the whole scene.
You duet with Joe Jackson on that track. Reflect on working with him.
Joe Jackson was this exotic figure that came in from England just to do this number. He’s a 6-foot-6 albino blonde. How strange and silent an individual he was when he came in. He was extraordinarily shy and it was like looking at somebody from another planet. Then he began to settle down. It took him hours to get ready and then the piano started. We had the mics open and were waiting hours for him to be ready. He was just noodling at the piano and warming up and warming up. Then slowly, like a spring of water that bubbles to the surface, this voice started to emerge. Then the water got larger and slowly became a brook and then a river of sound began and this voice calling from some depth of his being began to come out of this tall, skinny guy.
The song started and he was playing and wailing. It happened and then it was over. He did many, many takes until he was satisfied and then he was done. Then we all went out to eat and this shy guy began to warm up. We went out for Chinese food. He loved the Chinese food and started laughing with us and suddenly became a buddy. He was going to leave that night and go back to England, but the next morning, he turns up and he starts to noodle at the piano and I’m jamming with Joe Jackson and rebopping. [laughs] It was a huge laugh and I’m such a fan of his. He’s such an exotic flower.
Compare the making of The Transformed Man to Has Been.
I was in the hands of relatively—I don’t want to say amateurish—but less complex musicians for The Transformed Man. Basically, I was on my own. Don Ralke [producer] was very talented, but we didn’t know what we were doing essentially. I knew what I was doing, but musically, I wasn’t very adept. I chose Ben for the new album because I knew how profound he was musically, so the music comes from him. He’s a musical genius and an extraordinary talent. He’s a wordsmith himself. He’s a modern day troubadour. He’s the modern day Elton John. He’s a complete entertainer.
It sounds like making the album was a highly satisfying experience for you.
Oh yes indeed. I had the most marvelous creative experience for two weeks in Nashville. I went into a studio where Elvis Presley did a lot of his records. I was part of the musical world. I went to the coffee shops they go to. I met musicians who are renowned and just a phone call away. They’d just drop in. I’m so delighted with this new world I’ve taken a small step in.
Has the experience sparked you to want to create and release new music more than once every 36 years?
I can’t fool myself into thinking I’m a musical diva now. I think it goes back to music upholding and enhancing the word and I love to play with that. But if Shout Factory says to me “Sales are going so well that we’d like you to make another record” and Ben says he’d like to do another one—which he already has—I would jump at the chance.