by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2004 Anil Prasad.
It’s a typically chilly winter’s evening in San Francisco, but singer-songwriter and guitarist Pat MacDonald is burning up. He’s in the midst of creating a CD-R of demos on his laptop for an upcoming release. Pat’s sitting cross-legged on a bed in the guestroom of the psychedelia-laden Haight-Ashbury home of Paula O'Rourke, the lead singer of Tiny, a Bay Area alt.country band he’s performed with on several occasions. Currently living in Barcelona, he’s in San Francisco for a series of gigs and to catch up with friends.
Decked out in a black sweater, indigo denims, dark tinted glasses and ankle-length boots, Pat is a youthful looking 51-year-old that digs his technology. He’s perfectly at ease working with complex, audio-editing software and is well-versed on all sorts of modern recording devices, which he proceeds to discuss in detail with Innerviews.
His wife Katherine comes by and breaks up the techno-fest by offering some snacks after dyeing a friend’s hair downstairs. She’s his constant companion, traveling wherever he tours. They’re a sleek-looking couple and deeply in love. They embrace and kiss each other at every opportunity. It’s a sweet scene to witness.
Pat and Katherine married in September 2001. It’s his second marriage. Previously, he was married to Barbara K. Together, Pat and Barbara were Timbuk3, an Austin, Texas-based sharp-witted, intelligent pop duo that released six excellent albums between 1986 and 1995, mostly through Miles Copeland’s I.R.S. Records label. Best known for the hit single “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades,” Timbuk3 garnered an international following before the break-up of the group and marriage. Pat and Barbara’s musical vision was one founded on integrity and lyrical honesty — qualities that wouldn’t let them sell “Shades” to the many commercial interests that approached them to use the track in television and radio ads for princely sums.
Since Timbuk3, Pat has released four solo albums. The first three, 1997’s Sleeps With His Guitar, 1999’s Begging Her Graces and 2001’s Degrees of Gone, are brimming with his typically well-crafted lyrics that range from the introspective, to social observation to the wryly humorous, all set to sensitive and intriguing arrangements that bridge a variety of rock, folk and pop influences.
Pat’s latest CD, the recently-released Strange Love: PM Does DM is the most atypical in his catalog. It’s a collection of Depeche Mode covers produced by John Parish, who also worked on Pat’s previous two solo records. When asked to describe his approach on the record, Pat handed the question over to Katherine.
“It sounds a lot like Pat’s typical work, but with pop lyrics and John Parish on most of the drums,” she explained. “It’s got some really interesting tempos, because John didn’t know a lot of Depeche Mode’s work. The first time John had heard a lot of these songs is when Pat played them for him. Pat’s personality shines right through the record. At first it seemed kind of odd to me, but he liked the songs so much and it snowballed after he got hooked on their simplicity.”
Innerviews and Pat retreated to the nearby Bean Bag Café to discuss the new record and his career over pasta and crepes. Like his music, he’s very thoughtful and upfront with his feelings. There’s no pretense whatsoever. We followed up with a lengthy telephone conversation from his home in Barcelona.
You adhere to a unique philosophy when it comes to touring these days. Instead of traveling town-to-town every day or two, you tend to linger in cities for weeks at a time.
Yeah. It’s really nice to be right in the city and live there for a couple of weeks or a month. It just makes sense right now to take it slow and be in one place I like to visit for awhile. I’m not really going any place for the sole purpose of promoting a product anyway. I’m just out to play music and add a few names to the email list. My philosophy is work hard, but don’t beat your head against the wall. Touring is a lot of hard work. It’s unhealthy and unless you have people who can help you do it right and tour scientifically, it’s better to just live your life and make playing gigs part of that, rather than incorporate your life into a tour, which takes a lot of money and a lot of people to do it in a way that doesn’t kill you or severely damage you.
How does your current touring method compare with your days in Timbuk3?
We did some pretty hectic touring at different times, but we would also spend long periods of time off the road too. If we had toured constantly, we might have built up more of a solid base following and our records might have done better. But I was more into writing the songs and recording the records than I was in being on the road promoting them. It’s kind of weird. When you have a group of songs you put on a record, you’re supposed to do the redundant thing of trying to recreate that in a way. It makes more sense to perform new material for awhile, then make a documentation of it that represents some kind of finality. By the time I make a record, it’s as well as I can do that song. That’s as good a record as I’ll ever need and I move on to other songs.
Your wife Katherine got up onstage and sang with you the last time you performed in San Francisco.
Yeah, that was the first time she ever got up and sang with me. Her dad lived in Spain for awhile, learned flamenco and even learned to build flamenco guitars. He was a musician and craftsman. He was totally anti-establishment and a cool guy. Katherine came upon music very naturally. When I first met her, she was a big Marilyn Manson fan and into a different kind of music. When I told her that a record company said my music was dark, she really laughed.
Is it odd to tour the U.S. with your solo records only available in Europe?
It is kinda weird to have nothing that’s easily available here. I have four albums that are kind of almost incomplete in the sense that they haven’t connected with the people in the States that would naturally be interested in them if they knew they existed — let alone anybody new. In a way, it’s also nice because when people haven’t followed what I’ve been doing, I can spring a whole bunch of new work on them at once. That’s kinda fun. It takes them awhile to absorb it and they go “Oh my God! Here’ s a bunch of discs I’ve never heard before.” Even a friend of mine here in San Francisco I played in a band with a long time ago hadn’t heard of my last few records.
What band was that?
It was called Harmony Grits. It was kind of in the tradition of Sweethearts of the Rodeo and Gram Parsons. It was kind of cosmic cowboy music. We ended up being a showy kind of country variety show before we broke up. At first, it was a real stripped down kind of vehicle for originals and country standards mixed up together. Back in Wisconsin, where I’m originally from, we did some recording, but I don’t know whatever happened to that stuff. It was on a cassette tape that we didn’t mass produce. We did a few songs for demo purposes and getting gigs. You always had to send a tape to clubs to get work.
Why aren’t your records available domestically in America?
Partially because there aren’t as many independent labels doing well as there was once were. The natural route would be to go with a good independent label. The other route is a major label, but there’s no point in them taking me because I’m not what they’re selling these days. I haven’t really done the homework I would need to do to go out there and build things up. I haven’t done my own self-promotion to get a solid base of support or whatever I would need to get a major label interested. I haven’t made any records that scream radio play either. I don’t have the budget or interest to do that.
One gets the feeling you’re not really that interested in being part of the music industry again.
It would be nice to be part of it if I didn’t have to do what it would take to make it happen. If it would just fall into my lap, that would be fine. But it takes a lot more than that and right now, I’m just interested in developing what I do. I’ve always been more into developing the creative side of things over promoting my work. Promoting is such a fucking drag. It makes me feel cold, clammy and dirty spending too much time doing that. I have spent too much time at different times of my life doing it. I’ve always used music as an escape from a lot of things. If I can afford to have that escape, that’s good enough for me — as long as I’m not starving. On the other hand, I’m always doing something and looking forward to trying to write my story in a way. It’s all part of a developing, ongoing process of creating a body of work that has some value, hopefully, and doing a few things I need to do to ensure I continue to have the means to record and release records on whatever scale — large or small.
What made you want to do an album of Depeche Mode covers?
I learned “Personal Jesus” when it came out. There was an extended single that had an acoustic demo at the end of it. That’s the version I learned. I played it live once and people liked hearing it. Awhile later, I was listening to “Policy of truth” and thought it was a fucking great song. The lyrics were about somebody who was full of idealism, wanting to be honest with themselves and finding out that they were being persecuted for it, then regretting having been honest. I’ve never heard a song like that before. It was also a great riff to play on guitar. So, then I was playing two songs by Depeche Mode and as time went by, different songs appealed to me. Most of them were synth-based and it was fun trying to play them on guitar. There’s something about their songs that I appreciated as a guitarist. And as a singer, I liked to perform them too. I read somewhere that Depeche Mode’s songs were originally based on guitar riffs that Martin Gore came up with. What I’m doing is bringing the songs back to guitar, but not in the way they were originally played. I thought I was doing a service for guitar players by doing that. I’ve been figuring out these songs for awhile and decided to make a whole album’s worth.
John Parish was into the idea, so this is the third album we’ve done together. It turned out to be really fun. John and I did a couple of shows in Barcelona. I was playing “Personal Jesus” and “Policy of truth” at that time. John was playing them with me and he thought they were my songs at first. I told him they were by Depeche Mode and he got a kick out of that. He liked how I sang them with a touch of irony. Maybe I was being self-conscious because I was singing someone else’s songs and taking a step back. Sometimes a bit of disengagement allows a person a touch of freedom.
The record is a personal tribute to another songwriter. You can do a couple of songs by a person, but to do a whole album’s worth of stuff is a better tribute. It’s more flattering. The fact that it’s so pop also gives me a perverse thrill. Depeche Mode’s label is really supportive of the project. They gave it a big thumbs up.
Is there a careerist element in your decision to do a record like this?
Oh, I’m sure there is, as much as I’d like to deny it. [laughs] There’s every likelihood that this will sell more than any records of my own songs. I don’t know at what point that dawned on me, but I was well into it as a labor of love before I started seeing any commerciality to it. It was just kind of a dumb obsession for awhile, but I definitely wanted to make it as good as I possibly could. I didn’t want it to be some quickly-made collection. I wanted to perfect it in some sense. I put as much into recording the songs as I would have into recording my own songs. I hope they will appeal to people in a way that makes for a successful release. The songs are probably more accessible than my own in some way that I don’t understand. I don’t really know the difference between a hit pop song and my own songs that I write, but I imagine there is one. It’ll be interesting to find out whether this disc does appreciably better than my own stuff, because I’m really stupid about stuff like that. I don’t know why things work and why they don’t. This might be a bit of an education for me.
How do you look back at your previous three solo albums?
In a way, I look at Sleeps With His Guitar, Begging Her Graces and Degrees of Gone as a trilogy representing a period of my life. Degrees of Gone is almost the capper to that trilogy. It’s the final regurgitory statement of the time when I was not in love. Those are my “between being in love” records. A lot of songs deal with that. Sleeps With His Guitar was the early stirrings of that period, Begging Her Graces was deep in the thick of it, and by the time I made Degrees of Gone, I was in love again, although it was almost a chronicling of the last gasp of that period. The songs were there and I wanted to record them.
“Jenga” from Degrees of Gone was an early song that was around during the Sleeps With His Guitar Days. Originally, it was going to be on a disc called Some Ungodly Hour. It was going to be a 60-minute CD. It was the pre-version of Sleeps With His Guitar. There were a lot of songs from Sleeps With His Guitar on that. “Hawaii” was originally in that group of songs, but a different version. So, “Jenga” was a bit of bridging. I love that song. It bridges the period between loves of your life. It’s almost a kind of “here we go again... might as well go for it” thing.
When you did your first solo album, you said “I've taken a break from social commentary.” Why was that the case?
The first three albums are very personal records and it’s funny that I’ve sort of exhausted that period of my life and all of the angst of being a victim of your own inability to sustain a loving relationship. And now, just as that period of my life has ended, we’re in a situation where the world needs songs that are less selfish and more generous in dealing with what’s going on right now. I’m a little reluctant to plunge myself into writing political songs because I hate bad political songs — there’s nothing worse. Problems are too easy to exploit for the sake of having an audience or sympathetic ear. I did it when I was really young. I think I was a lot more passionate about world events than I was about my own personal life. I was almost living outside of my body. I wasn’t very centered and would get really angry about something that happened halfway around the world. It was real, legitimate passion that I would express in the songs relating to those topics. But at the same time, I tried to be so clever and channel my feelings into cleverness, so there were two things working against each other: passion and a technical level of expression. Now, I just want to do it in a more natural way and let myself be a vessel for whatever is there that needs to come out. I find when I’m in love, I have the luxury of looking at the world and not being so inside myself. Relating to another human in a close way changes how you relate to the world.
Philip Glass told Innerviews that he felt the best music written about trauma and tragedy is that which was written before it actually happened. That way, you’re not exploiting the situation or creating work designed to push the buttons of people predisposed to specific emotional responses.
Yeah, that rings true. The twin towers didn’t just happen on September 11, 2001. It happened slowly and surely all through the decades preceding it. It happened a million times before we actually saw it happen. I also think things happen on a spiritual level before they manifest themselves physically.
My feeling was vote for anybody but George W. Bush. I would have loved to have told people at that time that if he gets elected, the next thing that happens is we’ll be in a war for oil. That’s a given. Yet, at that time, it seemed like a paranoid thing to say. It would have been met with such skepticism. Some people were saying “Give the guy a chance, he can’t be that bad. The son has to learn the lessons from the father.” But look at what’s happening now.
I could hardly play “Jenga” after September 11, because it sounded like a song written about that event. It’s kind of a song about a tower falling and then building it again. The song was never meant to be literal. It’s a representation of an emotional situation. Playing it after September 11 felt like I was cheaply exploiting the situation. But even had it been written afterwards, it still kind of looks at the inside of the events, rather than the outside. Maybe it’s one of the best songs I’ve written.
Given your dissatisfying experiences with Miles Copeland during the Timbuk3 days, why did you choose to release your first solo album on his Ark21 label?
He made a lot of promises and had a lot of enthusiasm. There was a time when he wasn’t the biggest supporter of Timbuk3, but he always thought I had a special thing for writing and performing my songs myself. He always used to tell me that. When he found out that Timbuk3 was breaking up and I was doing a solo disc, he was all excited. He must have thought he could do something with it, but when I finished the record, he went out to the people he sends stuff to in order to see if he’ll have an easy time selling it or not. Those people supposedly said that it was pretty dark and wasn’t gonna be an easy sell. I was kinda surprised because I don’t look at it as being particularly dark although it’s not cheesy, lighthearted music either with pumped up production.
Basically, Miles had the wrong advisors telling him that the record would be a real hard sell. If he had tried it on a different angle and had different people around him, he might have got a little bit more of a positive response, which would have in turn given him more faith in putting it out there and getting the listening stations at Tower Records going. I was always getting feedback from everybody that played it that they loved it. People who owned it played it for friends and everyone wanted copies. In that sense, it was successful — or potentially so. But it’s a specialty item. It doesn’t fall down the middle of what’s an easy sell for the average guy.
Miles doesn’t have much success with many things. He’s the one who put out Manu Chao in the USA. I know the average person here has never heard of Manu Chao, but in Spain and most of Europe, he’s a god. Miles put out his record here and it did nothing. He just has the wrong approach or something.
Ulftone licensed Sleeps With His Guitar and then financed the next few records. I hooked up with them through Wally Ingram, the drummer on the album. He’s one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever played with. I love that guy. He was out there playing with David Lindley and showing people the record we’d just done. He continued doing that for awhile, even after it had died its commercial death in the States. He played the record for Ulf Zicke in Germany. His label Ulftone puts out David Lindley’s stuff in Germany. Ulf liked it and wanted to release it and that’s the connection.
What sort of artistic freedom does Ulftone give you?
Total freedom. They let me do what I want. It’s certainly not what a record company would normally do. In particular, John Parish couldn’t work with a record company that wouldn’t let the artist do what they want either. We record the albums real fast. We do them one song at a time, mix it and go on to another song. Within two weeks we’re done — bam, bam, bam. It’s all over so fast that the record company doesn’t have time to get involved in the process. [laughs]
How did you first meet John Parish?
I used to go to Miles Copeland’s castle songwriting retreat [held at Chateau de Marouatte, Copeland’s castle in the Aquitaine region of France]. It was hardly a retreat. It was a real working week or two. You would write a song with collaborators. It was fun. There were a lot of people who came to that thing yearly. At one point, it became two times a year in the spring and fall. John came to one of them. I didn’t know him until we got together to write a song. He started playing his guitar through a pocket-sized amp and I recognized his style. I said “Wait a minute, you’re the guy who plays with P.J. Harvey!” She really plays in his style. It turns out he had taught her his songs. She originally started playing in his band called Automatic Dlamini and he wrote the songs on guitar, but he wanted to sing and play percussion. He’s the shaker man. He plays really good hand percussion, drums and everything else.
When listening to John’s guitar style, man, it sounds like it came from blood. I always loved the guitar on Polly’s records. Even though Polly played the parts on the records, they both play the same style. Anyway, John and I hit it off. We wrote a song that day. Then we got together in L.A. one time when we both happened to be there. I played a song on harmonica. He had written a piece on harmonica and wanted me to come play on it back then, six years ago. It’s finally out now on his new record How Animals Move. We stayed in touch and the reason he produced me is because I was crying on his shoulder once.
P.J. Harvey played at a festival in Spain and they were there at the time Miles was wanted me to do another record for his label. I had all these ideas I wanted to pursue and he said no. He had heard some of my new stuff, but he wanted me to do a Spanish record with a lot of Spanish musicians playing Spanish-style songs. He even wanted me to sing some in Spanish. I’m like “No, that’s totally fake.” So, I was crying on John’s shoulder saying “Man, I can’t fucking relate to anybody in the music industry.” Miles in a way was my closest associate in the music biz. He was a patron of sorts. And then John said “I’ll produce you. We could do what you want to do.” I was thinking I could do it on Ulftone and John gave them a good deal. So, Ulftone financed it and that’s how Begging Her Graces happened.
John’s role when he’s producing me is more or less to get me to do the right take of a song. He tells me when I’ve played it enough or when I need to play another song and come back to the other one later. He’s got good ears and can tell when I’m trying to fool myself or when I’m really singing a song well.
Tell me about Space Kitty Blues, the novel you’re working on.
As you know, I am Matt Packard, who was in the one-hit wonder band from the ‘80s called Future X. We had a hit called “Space Kitty Blues” and in retrospect, it was a mistake. I let it be used in a cat food commercial on TV and lost my creative spark when I made the move to let them use it. It’s like Samson and Delilah. Matt lost his creative spark. Delilah was his temptation — the cat food commercial.
It sounds quasi-autobiographical — a life you might have led had you let “Shades” be used in a TV commercial.
You could say that. Obviously, there are a lot of personal elements in that. In some sense, it’s a fiction veiled in autobiography because it’s definitely a story I constructed with my own life in order to tell the story. I used a lot of elements of my existence in Barcelona, but the story is a twist on my life.
Of course, I never did sell the song, but I could have easily done so at some point in time. It’s about the decision that could have been made. That’s how it relates to my life. It’s how my life would be very similar, yet very dissimilar had I made slightly different choices.
The guy sells the song and loses his spark, because every time he tries to write a song from that point on, he envisions the commercial the song will ultimately be in because he didn’t have the power of refusal. He didn’t have the power of needing to give permission because his publishing contract didn’t allow for it. I do have that power. If anyone wants to use my songs, they have to get my signature. That’s not a standard thing unfortunately.
“Space Kitty Blues” is also the name of one of my own songs and I want to get it produced retro, ‘80s style. It’s a song I did with John Parish on Begging Her Graces. It’s just a drum loop, slide guitar, my guitar and a vocal. It doesn’t sound ‘80s at all, but it could. It’s got a very similar beat to another song that was a hit in the ‘80s. It sounds like “Shades.” I want to include a CD with the book. Maybe that’s what I’ll do.
I’m sitting here at a point of completion. I thought it was finished, and now it’s sitting there. I’m getting all these ideas about how I wanna improve it.
A lot of people don’t know that you’ve already published a book or two.
Yeah, there are a couple of books of poetry that I wrote awhile back. The last one was in ’95 and the other one was back in the ‘70s. I’ve got a handful of copies. I might redo them. There’s also a graphic novel that I wrote called Trucker’s Angel. It was sort of an accompanying piece to the Timbuk3 song “Mudflap Girl.” It’s the legend of the Mudflap Girl. A guy called Paul Pope did the drawings. He does a lot of graphic novels and he’s got a pretty good name in that world. It’s a nice little comic book.
You’ve followed a staunchly uncommercial path, yet you’ve written songs for some of the most commercial artists around like Cher, Night Ranger and Peter Frampton. How do you reconcile that?
It’s true. I co-wrote the single on Frampton Comes Alive II. That was written at the castle. Frampton is just a musician. He loves music and I wanted to write a song he’d sing in a lower register. If I’m writing with people, I like to do stuff they wouldn’t normally do. So, basically that song came out of that. It was “Let’s do something where you don’t sing so high.” He was great to work with man. He was really open and he’s an artist. I really like the guy.
When I worked with Cher, we were doing songs she wrote herself, including all the lyrics. They were poems she wanted to put to music. That was a challenge. Her lyrics were anything but commercial. She said “fuck” in practically every song, just like she talks. It’s her personality coming through. We wrote one song that got her in trouble with the Catholic church called “Sisters of Mercy” about her experiences in an orphanage when she was little. The nuns were like monsters. Nuns can be pretty mean to kids sometimes. I know, because I went to a Catholic grade school too. But some of them can be wonderful, beautiful people — innocent souls who chose that path. But Cher got in trouble because we were talking about the other ones. Someone raised a little stink somewhere.
People are people. It doesn’t matter if certain people are fashionable or unfashionable. It’s sometimes a perverse thrill to give someone really known for one thing the chance to do something else that’s really weird for them. It’s almost a psychological exercise. With Cher, that was not necessary. I didn’t need to pull anything out of her. That was all there. She just spewed and had blunt, hard-hitting lyrics. They rhymed and were ready to be made into songs.
Have you made some decent money from the songwriting work?
No. In fact I’ve probably had 50 songs commercially released on major labels that I co-wrote and have not seen one penny from any of them. I’ve not seen any mechanical royalties. Apparently Miles Copeland thinks the Harry Fox Agency is too expensive to join or something. So, he doesn’t bother collecting a lot of mechanical royalties, evidently. It really pisses me off. In addition, he never registered any of my songs to BMI for my solo releases. Finally, last year, I realized my songs weren’t registered. Somebody looked at the catalog and said “Oh, these songs aren’t there.” The only ones that had been registered were by people I had co-writing credits with on a few songs. My collaborators registered them. But Miles was supposed to do that himself. I didn’t check to see if he had done it. Fuck, I realized I’d done tours of Europe and filled out these little forms naming the titles of songs I was supposed to be compensated for when they were played. All of those forms I filled out were for nothing. None of that stuff was collected because none of the songs were registered. It’s a pretty piece of change for a guy like me, but for Miles it’s just small change, so he doesn’t bother with it. It’s pretty pathetic.
Given all of that, how do you feed yourself?
Well I do get the BMI checks every quarter for the past catalog for the old stuff that’s in a lot of movies and in a lot of synchronization with various media, as well as radio play. There’s a lot of material. It’s not all from the one, big hit song. It all adds up. So, I get a little check every few months and I play gigs. Between the gigs and royalties, I can eke out a living. If I took one or the other away, it wouldn’t be a livable income by any stretch.
Describe the circumstances surrounding Timbuk3’s break-up.
I felt really trapped in the band and the expectations of what people wanted the band to be, both in and outside of it. I was writing different kinds of songs that didn’t really fit the band or weren’t embraced by it, because Timbuk3, whatever phase we were in, was always about pretty upbeat music.
I look at it as different drugs. Although I’ve never done this drug before, I sort of relate what I was doing to heroin and what Timbuk3 wanted to do as cocaine and speed. The drugs were incompatible at that point in time. This is not to say that Timbuk3 were a bunch of coke abusers. [laughs] Actually, Timbuk3 had a rule from the beginning which was we wouldn’t use alcohol or any drugs when we went on stage or even the day of or the day before. Barbara and I wouldn’t even have sex the night before or the day of a gig. We really saved every ounce of energy and passion for the music. It’s not that every musician we ever played with didn’t partake of something now and then, but Barbara and I had a real strong rule of no mind-altering substances the day of a gig. There were a lot of gigs, so we were pretty clean in that sense. But I’ll tell you that on the last Timbuk3 tour we did, I drank a lot.
I felt I needed to drink to be up for the gig because I didn’t feel like we were doing anything new. I wanted to do all these new songs I had written, but couldn’t do them. Barbara and I would fight and I was a ball of nerves about it all. I felt the odd man out in that band at the time. We had not just Barbara, but other musicians in the band too and we tried to make it as democratic as possible, but that didn’t make it satisfying for me. We wanted everyone to be happy and in the end, nobody was happy. I think without the strong musical connection, my personal relationship with Barbara started disintegrating and unraveling.
Are you still in touch with Barbara?
A little bit. We have a son together, so it’s important that we maintain some kind of contact. She’s been to Germany a lot lately and she’s really finding her own way. It’s taken her deeper into her music and farther away from it at times. Our lives have taken us far from each other and I think it’s been real important for her to divorce herself as much as possible from the past and from Timbuk3 in order to find her own voice. She has a voice, but it can get cluttered with the past. She can easily get weighed down by the past if she allows it to invade her life. I’m a little more embracing of the past as far as the musical past goes. It’s my body of work and I’m not going to divorce myself from it. When we were together, I was more wanting to get away from a lot of the past. A lot of the chains of expectation were coming from the past.
I don’t think Barbara realizes how important her contribution to Timbuk3 was and how much of a product it was of who she is, just as much as me. I think she thinks “Oh, that was Pat’s thing and that wasn’t me.” She distances herself from it. But I still keep in touch with Bob Diaz, the guy who runs the Timbuk3 fan website. Barbara gave me all of her archives, except for a few souvenirs she wanted. I give Bob things every now and then that he can sell on eBay or whatever to make the money to maintain the site. He tries to keep in touch with other people who were in the band, their careers and everything. He has a link to Barbara’s website and has created one for me there. I think it’s great that he’s maintained this for so long and is so dedicated.
I understand there’s a lot of unreleased Timbuk3 material still in the vaults.
Yeah. It’s all in storage and I’ve got all of it. There is a lot of stuff. At the time, when that stuff was newer, we really only wanted to release the stuff that would have the best chance of sustaining our career. Having our own studio, we produced a lot of stuff that never got released. It would be a monumental job to put together any of that stuff for release. Somehow, I think it will fall on me someday, but hopefully by then, I will have people to help — assuming there’s even a need for that or any interest in it. I’d like to see that stuff come out somewhere. I still remember the joy of discovery in coming up with some of that stuff. It’d be fun to see what could be put together — the best of the unreleased stuff. I have a funny curiosity about it.
You headed up a group called Pat MacDonald and The Essentials in the early ‘80s. What can you tell me about the band?
That was from when I went from playing solo acoustic to wanting to do a band. At first it was a four-piece band. It was kind of inspired by people like J.J. Cale. It was an attempt at doing a stripped down, kind of less boozy, bluesy rock. I always thought bluesy rock was kind of sloshy-sounding. It was kind of bar band music with lyrics that were important to me at the time. We did a couple of records and Barbara ended up joining the band playing violin as a lead instrument after she had only being playing for six months. The guitar player quit and I needed to hire somebody. Barbara was my girlfriend and played violin, so she was in the band. That kind of evolved into a larger band with saxophone and another guitar player. It was a six piece band. When it broke up, we started Timbuk3.
How do you look back at the records you did with The Essentials?
They’re crude and I can see through them to the attempt that was being made. In places, they hit the mark and in others they don’t. I can do that with just about any stuff I’ve released. Some of the music is kind of cheesy and that’s the thing I hate most — the cheesiness. I really cringe when I hear some of it. They’re a couple of spotty efforts. They sound like an early attempt at Timbuk3 in a way.
What prompted you to move to Barcelona?
Two coincidences. There was a little, lost weekend where I split with my past life. I was in Wisconsin and I met a girl from near Barcelona who was working there. And Jackson Browne had been telling me about Barcelona and what a great place it was. He had an apartment there and said I could go and stay there and be inspired. He also thought my music would go down well over there. So, I went to visit that girl and I was there for six weeks. Then I went back to the U.S. to mix Sleeps With His Guitar. As soon as I was done with that, I went back to Barcelona. I was playing lots of gigs at that point. I fell in with a guy who has been my manager in Barcelona ever since. His name is Alberto Manzano. He’s actually a poet by vocation. That’s his main thing. But for a living, he’s mostly a translator. He translates the works of Leonard Cohen, J.J. Cale and Tom Waits into Spanish and publishes them as books. He’s my best friend there. He books every gig, drives me to every gig, and sets up press, media and promotion. He just does this stuff as a sideline. He even set up a record label to release Begging Her Graces in Spain.
What keeps you in Barcelona after all this time?
Just about everything. [laughs] Katherine loves it too. It’s so multifaceted. I love the lifestyle. It’s a beautiful, nice life. I like waking up in the morning there. I like the first time I step out onto the street in the daytime. I like opening the windows and stepping out onto the little balcony and seeing the street music and pedestrian traffic down below.
I recently bought a couple of little amplifiers there. I use a regular guitar amp crossed over with a bass amp. I have to use both because I tune my guitar down low. My rig here in the U.S. is a Fender Twin with a subwoofer connected like a powered sub, whereas over there, it’s two mini-amps. One is a Peavey guitar amp, a fake tube amp crossed-over with a little bass amp with a 15” speaker in it with a small cabinet so you can carry it up the five flights of stairs to the apartment. I bought the amp at a music store down the street and the guy who worked at the store helped me carry it over to the apartment with a dolly. You walk everywhere in Barcelona. So, the guy carried it up the five flights of stairs. Of course, I’ve had to carry it up every other time since, but people there are so friendly. They break the rules for you.
Was there an element of simply wanting to get away from America too?
Oh yeah, definitely. Right before I moved to Barcelona, I had done a whole tour of the U.S. in ’96 and it was horrible. I was all by myself driving around and most of the places I played had no promotion. There were no records in the stores. It was a typical nightmare tour. I’ve heard tapes of that period and I sounded so depressed. You could hear it in my voice. I can’t listen to them anymore. It was such a lonely situation because I was on the road by myself and there was no-one at the gigs generally — just a few people. I was a lonely soul and the career was no consolation prize. I was really in the mood to seek some fresh horizons and Spain seemed so open to me and so interested in what I was doing. Even though people couldn’t understand the lyrics generally, they would listen at the gigs as if they understood every word. It was a kind of wide-eyed innocent love of music.