by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2023 Anil Prasad.
Trevor Rabin’s footprint on the worlds of rock and film and television scores is significant and enduring.
From the early ‘80s to the mid-‘90s, the South African multi-instrumentalist, singer-songwriter, and producer was the driving force behind Yes, helming a dramatic resurgence in the band’s fortunes and cultural relevance. The group’s 1983 release 90125 was a global multi-platinum smash, with its accompanying lead single “Owner of a Lonely Heart” hitting number one on the Billboard Hot 100. He went on to lead further ambitious efforts for the group, including 1987’s Big Generator and 1994’s Talk, before leaving it to shift his career focus to the soundtrack realm.
Rabin has composed more than 50 film and television scores across the last 27 years. Some of his key projects include Armageddon, Con Air, Enemy of the State, Get Smart, The Glimmer Man, Gridiron Gang, Max, Remember the Titans, and Snakes on a Plane. He’s also responsible for TNT’s Inside the NBA theme.
His “Remember the Titans” theme has had particularly major impact, having been used in 2008 by US President-elect Barack Obama during his 2008 election night address. The historic moment, during which America’s first African American president gave his victory speech, meant a great deal to Rabin, given his anti-apartheid focus during his years in South Africa.
He was a major rock star in his homeland during the earlier part of his career between 1973-1978, before relocating to London in 1978, and America in 1981, where he now resides. In South Africa, he was part of Freedom’s Children, a rock act that recorded his song “State of Fear” which addressed the then apartheid-based Afrikaner government’s brutal systemic injustices. His next group Rabbitt was a major success in the country, releasing two hit albums, and routinely performing in support of the anti-apartheid movement.
Notably, two of Rabin’s relatives were pivotal in the dismantling of apartheid: his uncle Sydney Kentridge and cousin Donald Woods. Kentridge was a prominent civil rights lawyer and judge. He represented Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and the family of slain anti-apartheid activist Steven Biko against the concocted racism-driven charges levied against these critical figures. The late Woods was one of South Africa’s most revered journalists who campaigned against apartheid and authored the important book Biko. It chronicled how the visionary protestor was killed by the South African government while in detention, and the aftermath of the state-sponsored murder. The experiences of Kentridge and Woods influenced Rabin’s perspectives, as well as some of his songwriting, including the title track of his 1989 solo album Can’t Look Away, and another one of its key songs, “Sorrow (Your Heart).”
Rabin’s new album Rio, his first vocal record since Can’t Look Away, includes a track titled “Egoli,” which examines his thoughts on the challenges South Africa is facing in the post-apartheid era. He also offers his views on the country’s rampant illegal poaching crisis that’s decimating rhino populations on "Thandi." And “Push” portrays Rabin’s disillusion with the cratering of intelligent political discourse worldwide, with nation after nation now openly embracing right wing nationalism, xenophobia, racism, and climate change denialism.
The album also includes more personal lyrical moments, including its first single, the driving anthemic track “Big Mistakes,” which describes evolving through life and love during Rabin’s late teens and early twenties.
Musically, the album offers considerable diversity, combining rock, pop, progressive, country, and global influences from South Africa and India into its constructs. Rabin performs the majority of instruments on the LP, with contributions from drummers Vinnie Colaiuta and Lou Molino, and percussion arrangements by Ryan Rabin, his son and a well-known producer and performer in his own right.
Rabin discussed the making of Rio with Innerviews, as well as the complexities of the modern music industry in a Zoom interview. He also explored the 2016-2018 period during which he reunited with Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman to perform as Yes Featuring Anderson, Rabin, Wakeman.
What drove you to return to the rock domain as a solo artist after 34 years given your success as a soundtrack composer?
When I started working in film, which was in 1994, I didn't know how it was going to go. My manager said to me, “Oh, it's a brick wall. You won't be able to get in there.” And I thought, “Well, I'd really like to try. I love working with orchestras.” I'd had a number of years of composition training with this brilliant guy, Walter Mony. I was a terrible student, but he was a great teacher. So, I really wanted to do some films, and then get back and do a new solo vocal album. So, I started doing soundtrack work and 30 years later it's like, “Oh my God, I've done 50 films and I haven't done a vocal album in decades. If I don't do one soon, I'm going to be dead.”
Consequently, I called my film agent and I said, “Look, I'm not doing anything for a while. I've been promising myself that I'm going to do a vocal album. I have so many ideas burning inside me and I really need to do this now.” So, I went on hiatus with film work for 18 months and made this record.
I didn’t even have a record deal as I was doing it. I had met Thomas Waber, who runs the Inside Out label during the Anderson, Rabin, Wakeman years. He wanted me to produce a record for the band for the label. But I just didn’t want to do it. The truth is, and I can say this with a certain amount of affection, is that Yes is a whale. When it’s in the water, it swims fantastically great, but as a producer, getting it in the ocean is a bloody pain in the ass. [laughs] I just couldn’t see myself doing that.
After the Yes Union tour in 1991, Rick Wakeman and I said, “We’ve got to work together again.” So, I played on a record of his called Return to the Centre of the Earth. We also said, “When the opportunity comes, we should go out on the road together again.” And the result was Anderson, Rabin, Wakeman. But we never made a record. Instead, I chose to make Rio myself.
When I made Rio, I didn’t speak to anyone about it. I almost did it in a vacuum, apart from the great musicians who I worked with on it. At the end of making it, I thought “Well, the music business is so different now, but I don’t want to self-release it into this new world.” I had a great relationship with Thomas at Inside Out, and even though we didn’t do the Anderson, Rabin, Wakeman record, he said to me, “If you do anything else, please keep me in mind.”
I literally didn’t call anyone else. Usually, a musician will go to their lawyer and say, “I want to see if I can get a deal for my record.” And that lawyer will usually approach three or four labels and play them against each other to try and get the deal better—all the usual stuff. I didn’t want to be involved in any of that. So, I simply said to Thomas, “I’ll send it to you and if you’re interested, you can have it.” And that was it. My lawyer complained a little bit, I said “Look, just call Thomas. Make it attractive for him to do it and make it attractive for me to let them take it.” It was really that simple.
What’s it been like for you to work within the radically different 2023 music business to release Rio?
The streaming world and how the hit parade connects to things like TikTok, which isn’t really streaming, but is related, is so beyond me. I don’t want to go down that rabbit hole or have anything to do with it. So, yes, it’s a such a different environment from a business perspective.
I remember when Yes’ Talk album came out, we were also facing a different environment, but we kind of understood what happened. We did the record and were happy with it, and almost the day it was released, the record company went insolvent. The business had also changed, but we steamed ahead with a new way of recording using digital audio. That was a new frontier. When we made the album, we weren’t thinking about what music was doing socially or where it was going, stylistically. It was beyond grunge at that point. It was such a weird period.
Today, things are even more complex. I don’t even know how to release a record and where to advertise and promote it. I have to say, I have a lot of faith in Thomas and Inside Out, so it’s easy in that I get to work with him to make it happen. I’m letting them handle the complexity for me.
Describe the creative process that informed the album.
I think you’ll hear a freshness on Rio that comes from the fact that I hadn’t done a vocal album for so long. I hope you’ll hear that I progressed musically since Can’t Look Away. When I started the album, it almost felt like my very first album. It felt like a whole new thing and was exciting all the way through.
I wrote it on my own. It goes back to how I worked on Yes’ Talk album. For instance, there was a song on it called “Endless Dream.” I wrote it from start to finish before playing it to the band. It was just a very efficient way of doing it. Then Chris Squire got involved, and then the rest of the band did. I remember playing it to Jon Anderson for the first time. He came over to hear it with his son Damion. They sat in the back of the studio as I played it. I didn’t turn around. When it was finished, I turned around and Jon was crying. I thought “Well, this is either really bad or good.” It turned out it was good.
I used a similar process on this album. It was like a jigsaw puzzle I started. It was also like climbing to the top of a mountain with some tumbles along the way.
Working solo is beneficial for me in this context. If you have a bad day, you can say “You know what? I’m just going to go for a long walk. I’ll get back to this tomorrow.” In contrast, when you’re working on a film, every day you’re faced with a blank page and you better bloody fill it. There’s a discipline involved with film that’s stringent and almost militant. When I started this album, I had a bit of that in me, but there were days when I wasn’t feeling it. I’d try something on guitar and not be sure if I was playing well or hearing something that appealed to me. So, I would start and stop at times.
This happened with mixes, too. I’d finish a mix and then realize it wasn’t working and redo it. Sometimes it would be about the EQ on the bass drums being completely wrong so that it’s not gelling with the bass guitar properly. Things like that.
There’s a lot of diversity in vocal approaches on the record. Describe the considerations at work.
There’s a song called “Tumbleweed” on the album which has an a cappella thing happening. There are a lot of vocals, and it took a while to do because there’s nothing manipulated. It is what it is. I wanted to ensure I kept that kind of sensibility going throughout the record. That was quite interesting and also hard work.
I know the technology very well, but I hate tuning vocals, as well as bad guitar takes. It doesn’t sound good. So, I don’t touch those with any tuning or correction mechanisms. I just do the parts again. With guitar solos, I’ll keep improvising within the same solo and do it three of four times. Sometimes, I’ll cut them together.
“Push” is about the corruption in politics. Tell me what you’re communicating and how the expansive arrangement supports the song’s narrative.
Lyrically, it comes from me looking around and seeing what Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and Viktor Orbán say, and the fact that everything seems to be moving to the right. It’s scary, especially for someone like me from South Africa, who saw that thinking on steroids. I also came from a liberal family. My uncle Sydney Kentridge was Nelson Mandela’s lawyer.
The contrast with what’s happening now is the complaint within the lyrics. But I don’t like to get too preachy with stuff. I don’t think musicians should be doing that. I’ll leave that to the poets and philosophers. But not politicians. They’re just liars.
The track starts with acoustic guitar and progresses into some heavy electric guitar, and then the vocal starts. The incredible drummer Vinnie Colaiuta pounds in, and then it’s off to the races to show “Now, I’m going to get angry.” That’s where the lyrics go.
You’ll hear me go into a weird time signature thing on it, from 11/8 to 12/8 to 10/8, then I circle three bars, as opposed to what would usually be four bars. I wanted it to feel edgy and uneasy, like the subject matter. So, the music supports what the lyric is exploring, as does Vinnie’s work, which was so inspiring.
“Paradise” is an intricately sculpted, mercurial piece. Talk about putting it together.
You’ll hear almost a contradiction between the lyric and the music on this one. It’s talking about how as we thought we were reaching paradise, but paradise is on its way out. It’s a dark lyric, but I wanted it to sound happy and almost anthemic. As with “Tumbleweed,” there’s an almost a cappella thing happening, about two thirds into it. Lou Molino, who plays drums on most of the album, is also a fantastic singer. We did that end bit together. After that, the song part combines with the a cappella part again as it finishes. Lou did such a great job on it. He and I have a shorthand. He always just knows what a song needs, and his parts always turn out just the way you hope to hear them.
“Thandi” begins with Indian konnokol vocal percussion, before launching into a hard rock guitar focus. Discuss what it explores.
I’m so happy to hear you identified the konnokol element. That’s a real complement because I’ve listened to a lot of Indian music. I’m a huge fan of what John McLaughlin did with Shakti, too. I saw them in Malibu 20 years ago. John and I also had a great chat after the show. The essence of Indian music and the incredible discipline involved always just blows me away. As you said, the konnokol part merges in with the guitar part.
I’m going to sound like an angry guy here, but this is also a protest song. It’s about poaching in South Africa and the destruction of the rhinos. It’s just beyond belief at this point.
Once again, I tried really hard to ensure the music supports the theme. When the fast guitar riff comes in, that’s me trying to depict the poachers going for it. I also see the game wardens in my head. Maybe it’s my movie thing happening. Eventually, the song calms down and the vocal part comes in and tells the story.
This was quite a tough track to do because it goes through a lot of changes. I really had to get it together to make happen.
“Egoli” is titled after the Zulu name for Johannesburg, South Africa. How does the track relate to your national roots?
My goodness, I’m realizing how angry an album this is as I talk to you. This song is about the incredible transformation that occurred when Mandela got out of jail in 1990. As I mentioned, Sydney Kentridge, Mandela’s lawyer, is my uncle. He just turned 100. On my father’s side, the journalist Donald Woods is my cousin. He wrote the book about Biko that came out in 1978.
I still remember the first time I ever spoke to Peter Gabriel. I was working with a drummer he was also working with, and then one day he calls. I had just moved to London, and I was thinking “Wow, that’s strange.” It turns out all Peter wanted was Donald’s phone number, because he was doing the track “Biko.”
I grew up in this kind of fascist, and certainly racist South Africa. And when Mandela got out of jail, it was like the heavens opened up. It was unbelievable. I had the good fortune of meeting him when I played a Prince’s Trust concert in Johannesburg in 1997 and went to lunch with him.
“Egoli” is about how this great rainbow nation came about because of Mandela. Things were so fantastic, for a while. Unfortunately, South Africa has since become a kleptocracy. If you look at the politics of Johannesburg, it’s really corrupt. It’s turned into an absolute nightmare. So, the song is really about that. It sounds like a kind of happy thing again, but with a dark, dark lyric.
The deluxe edition of Rio includes a demo version of “Fragile,” a song originally intended for the aborted Anderson, Rabin, Wakeman album. Tell me about its provenance.
I wrote that track ages before Anderson, Rabin, Wakeman, in the midst of doing a film. That’s the version on the deluxe edition. The Anderson, Rabin, Wakeman version was related to the band’s manager saying, “Look, we’re going on another tour. People are saying ‘Why aren’t you recording?’” So, it was almost a kind of peace offering to the manager. I said “Alright, let’s bring this song out. Jon and Rick can get involved in it.”
We snuck it out on Jonesy's Jukebox, the KLOS radio show and podcast. I think they played it only once. That was the only time. We didn’t end up releasing it. We did rehearse it, but never performed it live. So, yes, it’s the same song, but the original version.
I wish I could say I wanted it on the album. [laughs] Inside Out said it was doing a deluxe edition and that it would love to have some bonus tracks. So, I thought “Well, this might work, as long as it’s seen as a demo.”
Elaborate on why Anderson, Rabin, Wakeman faded out, given its auspicious beginnings.
As I mentioned, the band goes all the way back to the Yes Union tour, where Rick and I became close friends. We used to meet in London for tea. It was a bucket list thing for us to work together in another band, and we made a pact to do so. So, Rick, me, and Jon decided to tour, while I was still in the middle of doing movies.
I said “Great, let’s do five or six shows and have a lot of fun.” Well, that five or six shows turned into 200. [laughs] We had a ball. It was so enjoyable playing live again and having Lee Pomeroy on bass and Lou Molino on drums for it. They’re both such great musicians.
The shows were very natural and enjoyable. It seemed like the audience was having fun. Once it came to an end, it wasn’t like a classic breakup or anything. It was more like, “Well, we did it, and it was fun.” I had other things I wanted to do, and Jon was doing his thing with the School of Rock and his other solo stuff. I think we stopped long before the fans wanted us to, but that was just kind of it. We wanted to end it on a good vibe and now it’s over.
Rick and I are still in touch and have been talking about doing a classical album with piano and guitar, but we haven’t come to a conclusion on moving forward with that.
My sense is you’ve been the most reluctant person in the Yes family to want to deal with the incredibly awkward political situations the band has created for itself. Was there a sense that the ambition of the music was worth the trade-off for enduring the agony?
I still recall the Big Generator period, when I finally finished it. The album almost killed me. I had to salvage the whole thing and mix it on my own with no-one in the studio. It was traumatic. My stomach lining went, but I did finish the record. After I did, there was a press conference in Los Angeles for the band to announce that the album was finished and released. I told my manager at the time, “I’m going to be taking the opportunity to say I’m leaving.”
Right up until the last second, he tried to talk me out of it. I said no. Then my wife called me and said, “Maybe this isn’t a good idea.” I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I acquiesced and stayed in Yes.
There were problems making 90125, too. I finally got through what I needed to in order to get that record done and was so exhausted afterwards. And then there were many interview requests, and they’d always want Jon Anderson, me, and Chris Squire for them. I never wanted to do those interviews because I was afraid I was going to say something wrong. I’d always get asked the question “How does it feel to fill the shoes of Steve Howe?” As I always said, “We wear different kinds of shoes, and our sizes are different.” That wasn’t taken too well by people. So, I said “Look, I’m going to do way less of these.” And on the occasions I would do interviews, I’d always look back and go, “Maybe I shouldn’t have said that.”
But yes, at the end of every album I did with Yes, there was a set of mixed feelings. It was part euphoria about getting it done and dread about the rest of things. I think I would get to about 80 percent of how I wanted things to sound, and the other 20 percent was my stomach lining going.
In the end, I felt no band has the right to impose its problems and nonsense on the people who just want to hear the music. But Jon seemed to believe everyone wanted to know everything about him. I was on the opposite side of the fence. So, in that sense, things were like oil and water. There have been a number of times where I thought the politics of Yes were too much. And to be honest, it’s why I wouldn’t consider doing Anderson, Rabin, Wakeman again.
My wife has said to me quite often “You’ve put so much energy into the Yes stuff. I hope you’re still going to have the energy to do what your heart is really into, which is your solo stuff.” And that’s what I’m focusing on, today.
One of the highlights of your time in Yes was the deep camaraderie you had with the late Chris Squire. Talk about your friendship with him that went beyond your involvement in the band.
It was intense. To say he was a brother is putting it mildly. He was so supportive of me even in the beginning when we couldn’t get a record deal for what we were doing. Initially, what we did as Cinema, the band which turned into the Yes 90125 lineup, was looked upon as being a bit eclectic and weird. But Chris was dogged about it and said, “No, this is going to work.”
We had an incredibly close relationship on all counts. I could completely trust in Chris and know he’s going to do the right thing. We also had some serious arguments, which were almost violent at times.
What isn’t known, and I don’t mind it being known now, is once I started doing movies, there were a number of occasions in the ‘90s and early 2000s during which Chris tried to get me back in Yes and reconcile how to work with Steve Howe. I said, “That’s never going to work.” Chris replied, “Well, just come in and we’ll see what happens.” I had a couple of meetings and then I chose not to do it. I was also always in the middle of a film. But Chris was always going for it.
Chris and I talked all the time. I was completely devastated when he passed away from leukemia in 2015. The last time I spoke to him, I said, “How are you?” He replied, “Not good. It’s really annoying. The worst thing is I haven’t slept for two weeks. Have you ever done that?” I said, “No, not two weeks straight.” He said, “It’s absolutely the most horrible experience, just lying there and not being able to sleep no matter what pills they give you. All I want to do is get out. I can’t wait for this to stop and finish, so I can get back on the road.” And then he died three days later. But he so wanted to get back on the road.
The Writers Guild of America and Screen Actors Guild are currently on strike against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. They’re fighting for higher residuals from streaming media and influence over how AI is deployed by the studios. What’s your perspective on the situation?
I’m absolutely sympathetic to the fact that the writers and actors are in a position where they’re so vulnerable. All the studios care about is the bottom line. There are some people who try to keep the creativity going, but there’s so much pressure to get the bottom line happening that it’s all that matters.
The other big concern is studios have the legal ability to use this strike to cancel shows. The contracts allow them to do that when strikes take place in a way that’s easier than if there wasn’t a strike. I think the Robert Igers of the world have no interest in helping writers.
Max, formerly known as HBO, went as far as combining writers, directors, and musicians into an all-purpose category called “creators” in credits earlier this year. It was eventually reversed after an outcry, but what did that reveal about the studio mindset at work?
It’s fucking insulting, man. It reflects such an incredible amount of disrespect from the financial pencil pushers. Creativity doesn’t matter to them. This reduction of creative roles into a generic category for every single person is just unbelievable. The studios are basically saying, “We decide on everything, so just stay in your lane.”
Some of the issues the writers and actors are concerned about are very similar to those musicians face in the streaming universe. Why do you feel musicians are relatively incapable of organizing in the same way?
Yes, it’s incredible that a song or album can stream millions of times and generate so little money. Things are so out of whack.
When I first moved to England from South Africa, musicians’ unions were quite strong, and people were well-represented. The unions had some really weird rules, such as you couldn’t appear on TV to mime to your own song unless you had musicians appearing that were getting paid. Their rules were tough to bypass. But these days, musicians’ unions are weak entities. They don’t seem to have any strength and you see it in how streaming took over. It’s something that needs to be addressed at the congressional level.
Going back to how musicians respond, I still remember when recordable cassettes and CD-Rs came out. In both cases, there was supposed to be a strong protest from musicians. But nothing really ever happened. And now we find ourselves in a situation in which musicians are almost becoming nothing more than a utility.
You would think orchestras that work on scores would get together with film composers to protest, but you can forget about that. The music industry is such a cutthroat place. So many musicians and film composers think “Well, I’ve got this barracuda agent. I’m not represented by the union, and I don’t need to be.” It’s such a big mess and it means nobody ever gets properly represented.
There has also been a cratering in the fees soundtrack composers are offered in recent times. Tell me what you’ve noticed.
It’s unbelievable. I was talking with Danny Elfman about the golden time that was the ‘90s, when the role of a film composer was respected. Now, some people are just doing it on a laptop, and a lot of times, the studios are saying “You’re not going to get paid upfront. You’ll get your BMI payments later and that’s it.” It’s so ridiculous. That hasn’t happened to me, but I’ve heard of people who have been asked to do work for studios with nothing upfront. If it happened to me, I’d just say “Screw off.”
I think the presence of music in film has become a different kind of animal in recent times. It’s almost like musical wallpaper now. It doesn’t have as big a presence as it used to. It’s just a service. But think about the incredible things John Williams did, and still does. And look back to Westerns in the ‘50s which had such incredible scores. Those are what got me interested in film.
So, yes, the world of film scoring is a pretty sad place right now.
Did the uncertainty of future remuneration for your soundtrack work and minimal streaming payouts influence your decision to sell your music publishing catalog to Round Hill in 2021?
Oh, 100 percent. I also did it because I didn’t want to keep up with what all these changes mean. I’ve spent a long time trying to understand how things now work and to ensure the revenue was coming in correctly. And then this offer came up and I thought, “You know what? Let’s just get rid of it.” I’m happier now. I feel much freer.
I realize it has almost become a fashionable thing for investment firms or syndicates to approach musicians with substantial catalogs and offer them a lump sum. The formula is usually the current year’s revenue multiplied by 20. If you have a great lawyer, it might be 22 times. So, it was a good reason to do it.
I don’t know in the long-term if the companies buying all these catalogs will achieve payback that makes it worth it, but I was happy to do this before the point at which they needed to figure that out.
One of the questions I’ve asked myself is, “Well, was this a gamble?” And yeah, it is, but the thing is, I’m the one holding the house, so I can’t go wrong. If you sell it all and it’s a reasonable offer, then you don’t really have to worry about it. Again, my long-term concern is I’m old, so this felt like the right thing to do.
My concern is more about the younger musicians. Where is the revenue for them? It’s troubling. I don’t know what’s going to happen to the music business going forward, but as we’re discussing, the musicians need some kind of powerful union to represent and support them, but nothing’s happening now.
There’s a lot of discussion about studios using AI in the future to create soundtracks with minimal human involvement and investment. What are your thoughts about that?
I think it’s devastating for film composers. There are many film composers who get booked because of their stylistic approach. AI in the future is going to be able to take a style, feed it in, and come up with something as good at the fraction of the price and time it would take a person to do it. AI could probably spit out an entire score in a day.
These days, the financial negotiations for soundtracks are so predatory. When you add AI to that, it becomes an existential threat that threatens the whole fabric of what music is in film. There are days when I think, “I’m glad I’m old, because I would hate to live through this as a creative person over the next 20 years.” It’s really bad right now.
We’re seeing denial of reality across society right now. Look at global warming. I’ll never forget Trump saying “Low-flow toilets don’t flush properly. You gotta flush them twice to get everything out.” I’m thinking, “Hey, you idiot. We’re in a water crisis. What are you talking about?” And then you look at the flooding in Libya and the terrible drought elsewhere. The world is a troubled place.
On the flip side of the situation, tell me about some positives about the march of technology and how it’s helped you as a composer.
I remember the days of working with 24-track tape recorders. When you wanted to go back to the beginning of a song and redo a take, you had to rewind. That might take a minute or so, because tapes are really heavy. With digital recording, you can just keep working without worrying about any of that. You can get things done 10 times faster in that way. So, those mechanical benefits are a positive.
Sound-wise, the fact that you can use a laptop and get a damn good sound without a massive console is also impressive. But the flexibility and dexterity of a real studio is still a huge benefit. There are use cases for both approaches.
Also, being able to work with musicians in different places across the world virtually is incredible. It was especially the case during the COVID-19 pandemic when we couldn’t be in the same room with other people. Vinnie Colaiuta recorded his drums at his place and he sent me the files, as opposed having to go into a studio, record, and then FedEx a 24-track tape and have it arrive four weeks later. So, there are massive advantages.
One thing I don’t like though is getting into this cheap thing of tuning and fixing performances. You shouldn’t have to fix performances with technology. The performance should be there already, because it’s something you’ve worked at long enough to the point that it’s really worth listening to.
You’ve been an anti-racism advocate throughout your career. And of course, the "Remember the Titans" theme was used during Barack Obama’s presidential acceptance speech. What do you make of the devolution taking place in Western society as it relates to racism and why are so few musicians speaking out against it?
Well, if Donald Trump was to try and use the “Remember the Titans" theme, I would sue him. I’d do something. I’d destroy the tapes if I had to.
Racism is so pervasive at the moment and it’s part of the narrative. And the right-wing is very careful not to call it racism. Look at Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida and his whole movement to not teach what actually happened with slavery. That’s pure, unadulterated racism. There is no way to explain it in any other way.
In South Africa, I grew up with the right-wing Afrikaner government. I remember my dad saying to me, “Look, you’re going to school and you have to learn their history, but you are not to believe it.” It was a horrible thing to live with, knowing you’re being taught lies. And that’s what DeSantis wants to do in Florida, too.
Even from the age of 19, before I was in Rabbitt, I was in a band called Freedom’s Children. The South African government was not too keen on us. I wrote a song called “State of Fear” and we had posters plastered with it and the band name everywhere. We had secret police all over the place trying to find something to arrest us for.
The lyrics for “State of Fear” went “Shackled minds of darkness. Do you still refute the truth? Blinded by madness. Not accepting blatant proof in his name. We were made. One the master. One the slave.” It was banned from being played on radio. It was something I felt really strongly about.
I loved it when U2 did “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” I thought, here’s a band that’s highly successful that’s singing about something that means something. But today, artists are reluctant to make statements. Maybe it’s because there are so many artists out there now and they tend to just get one chance. In the old days, when I was signed to Chrysalis, they gave me three albums to make something happen, and then I was dropped. But they went all the way with three albums, and that was amazing. Nowadays, you get one single, and if it’s happening on YouTube, you might get another single. So, the idea of a sequenced album with a story to tell is disappearing.
I think artists are now risk averse. They don’t want to rock the boat with important statements because they only have this one shot. The days of artists being told “We want to do an album with you and really develop you” are pretty much over. That’s very remote as a possibility these days and it’s very sad. There are some great musicians out there and they’re not getting the chances they deserve. It’s a troubling thing.
Reflect on the making of your 1981 album Wolf and how you put together such an extraordinary lineup of musicians for it.
It was quite amazing. I had been working at Ray Davies’ Konk Studios in 1980, producing the debut album for Wild Horses, a band that included guys from Thin Lizzy and Rainbow, including Brian Robertson and Jimmy Bain. When I was there, I said, “I’m doing an album, too.” I spoke to Ray about it and working with him as associate producer happened almost naturally. He wasn’t there every step of the way, but he’d come in after mixes and provide input. We wrote a song together called “Long Island” for it. It was a good time and he’s a very interesting, great guy.
During the same period, I was co-producing Manfred Mann's Earth Band’s Chance LP. So, I said to Manfred, “Why don’t you play on my album, too?” He said, “Yeah, of course.” Chris Thompson, who was with Manfred Mann, also agreed to contribute vocals. Noel McCalla also came in to sing background vocals. I was also producing his album Night Time Emotion around the same time.
I sent demos to Simon Phillips and Jack Bruce, not knowing if I’d ever hear from them, but they were positive and said they’d love to do it, too. Jack was a character and such a great bass player and vocalist. While we were tuning, we’d be sitting there playing Cream stuff, which was so much fun. I remember going to the pub with Jack during a break. I said to him, “I don’t know Ginger Baker, but I hear he’s sober these days.” Jack leaned forward and said, “That’s when he’s most fucking dangerous.” [laughs]
The late Mo Foster also played on it. He was the most lyrical bass player. Just phenomenal. You’ll hear him on one song, “Heard You Cry Wolf.” He’s playing such a beautiful fretless bass line on it that’s so lyrical. It almost made me want to take the vocal out and just have it be a kind of Jaco Pastorius piece.
I look back at the album very fondly. The record before that, Face to Face, was a trying time. The first album had come out and did what it did. And it was like, “Okay, it’s time for your second album.” I wasn’t ready and I didn’t have the material I needed. It was like being under the dentist drill to make Face to Face. I got to a point where I was enjoying the process, but it was a tough one compared to Wolf.
Is there a spiritual element in what you do as an artist?
There was a point in time when I thought I needed to meditate. I was highly-strung a lot of the time and getting depressed with the changing world and environmental crisis we’re facing. I went online to try and find ways to meditate, but it wasn't working. Then I realized that actually, when I’m playing and working in the studio, I am meditating. My wife sometimes would come in while I’m scoring and say, “Did you come to bed last night?” I’d respond, “I worked through the night but I’m not tired.” It’s something that overtakes everything. So, I think music is my religion. That’s definitely the case.
When I make music, it’s about something bigger than me. I’m asked very often by people, “How do you write a score?” And my response is, “I don’t know.” When people ask me to do a score, I realize I have to present myself as a professional. I have to say, “Oh yes, of course I can do that and get it done by this date.” But I really have no clue what I can do.
Vinnie Colaiuta said something to me that stuck and that’s “The minute you start thinking about what you’re doing, you can’t play. You’ve got to stop thinking and just do it.” And I think that’s exactly it. If you’re a thinking musician, think about how to make what you did better, afterwards. Don’t think while you’re doing it.
The music just happens when it happens. And that’s the way I have to approach it, otherwise it’s not going to happen. I’ve got to get out of the way and let it come through.