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Al DiMeola

talks to Ralph Denyer | Al DiMeola

Article from Sound International, February 1979

Well... what can you say? You know how good he is and what a writer our Ralph D is. But don't let's give the game away: read on!

I first interviewed Al DiMeola in 1976 when he visited Europe in the company of Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke and Lenny White (each of the parties hereto being hereinafter referred to as Return To Forever or the abbreviation RTF). He had the direct and at times abrasive manner of a young man who knew where he was going and was in a hurry to get there. Since then he has caused quite a stir with three solo albums at a time when most other fusion guitarists have found difficulty in putting fresh expression in their music. He's less eclectic these days, with the Spanish musical influence that permeates through some Mediterranean and just about all Latin American countries becoming an increasing force behind his creativity.

He is virtually unchallenged as the fusion guitarist technician of the late Seventies. However, no matter how you look at the present day situation he faces, he has problems which are almost entirely financially based. The same problems face most musicians who have roots firmly in jazz and their eyes on substantial record sales. In the past even top jazz and fusion musicians have frequently had to record on budgets that allow them minimal recording time in comparison with even the average rock musician. Often three or four days recording for an album would be the maximum the jazz musician would dream of. The successful rock musician thinks very little of recording for three or four months, at the same time globetrotting to use favourite studios.

Most large record companies now regard limited budget projects aimed at a limited area of the record buying market as no longer viable. To be fair to the record companies, recording, touring and record production costs have reached an unbelievable level.

So musicians like Al find they have to involve themselves in a huge commitment with their record company in order to merely function as a musician. The only way they can survive (other than hand to mouth) is to gear themselves up to sell as many albums as the popular rock bands.

When you read that DiMeola is doing a world tour, has albums out and is winning music polls, it might be hard to accept the fact that his solo career over the last two years has resulted in him being deep in debt. Surprising once again as he claims to be the second biggest album seller in the progressive jazz field (the biggest being Weather Report). If his next and fourth album goes gold in America he'll be out of debt. If not the chances are he'll be further into the red.

We discussed his situation from the business angle in depth. First, though, I asked him about his musical development since leaving RTF. I put it to him that he was the first jazz or fusion guitarist to play with the power of his contemporaries in rock and with the musicianship of those in jazz.

'I always wanted to play Latin influenced music, I'm always listening to it. The guitar is such a perfect instrument through which to express emotion. I consider Latin music to be the most emotional of all. It can be happy or sad and change moods just like that (snaps fingers). I'm very influenced by Latin composers in the classical area as well as by the folk music of South America and the Mediterranean. Baden Powell for his Bossa Nova and to a degree his Samba. I am more heavily influenced by Antonio Carlos Jobim. I love Jobim as a songwriter and for feel.'

I found Al's preference of Jobim over Powell a little surprising as the latter is better known as a technician, Jobim being recognised more as the major South American composer.

'Exactly so, my preference is because of those incredible songs. In fact when I was in Brazil in the summer of '77 I composed a couple of Bossa Nova pieces that will be on my next album. I don't think people know enough about the origins of musical forms, that Bossa Nova and Samba are from Brazil, that Flamenco is Spain and Salsa is the Islands. Most non-musicians are not aware of things like that.'

Paco De Lucia, Spain's premier contemporary flamenco guitarist, did in fact guest on Mediterranean Sundance, a track on Al's second album. 'Paco and I are great friends. After I went to Brazil I flew to Spain where we hung out together for some time and became great friends.'

Another musician I asked Al about was Mingo Lewis who plays percussion on all of his albums and has at least one composing credit on each.

'Mingo has a fire and he fires me up quite a bit. He's a very action oriented person, full of power. It's in the way he writes too, if that guy wrote a ballad it'd be burning! He might be kinda hard to take for a laid back person but I find that if I've got some music to do he's great to have around. There's a lot of action when Mingo's in the studio with you.' He sounds very integral to Al's music, a totally different effect to tracking a conga player on when most recording has been done. I have percussion and bass lines in mind when I'm writing because I like the two to fit together hand in glove. When recording I avoid tracking things on later, I don't find that works too well with my music.'

Al has taken a keen interest in the recording side of the creative process of music making since his days with RTF. The famous story of how he became a member of the band goes something like this: Al had completed his schooling and was playing with the Barry Miles Quartet. A tape of his guitar playing was heard by Corea who offered him the gig replacing Bill Connors. After two days of rehearsal working with Corea's somewhat complex charts, DiMeola found himself on stage with the band at a sellout Carnegie Hall concert. He was 19 at the time.

Now you may think he would be in total awe of the musical giants he now found himself working with, but by the time he had recorded his second album with the group the young greenhorn was explaining to Corea that the band's albums really could be a whole lot better. This was the year of '75 during which Corea and Stanley Clarke swept away all opposition in taking the top awards in their respective categories in all the most influential American music press polls. Al is not, as you may have gathered, one to mince words.

'I had to get them to agree to do that. Especially Chick who is used to walking into the studio and doing it. That is one concept, he was the producer and that was the way he wanted it. Only you are not going to give your best performance by doing it that way especially when your goals include selling a lot of records. I like to think of recording as more of a craft, creating a masterpiece. So you take that first concept and what you do is throw it out of the window. You may end up spending a day in the studio getting a very small detail in the music correct. I feel that the more attention you pay to detail, the more substantial and lasting the end result will be. I knew that a lot of things in our performance and music could have been a lot better. We did Where Have I Known You Before and No Mystery in about four days apiece and you don't cut albums like that, as far as I'm concerned there are no two ways about it.

'On Romantic Warrior I got them to spend two weeks but even that isn't enough. I don't advocate spending a lot of time recording for the sake of it but just to take as long as is necessary to get the best possible performance on tape. People who buy records are not concerned with how much time you spend recording, they just want to hear something that is dynamite. Just take as long as it takes to make a quality record. Just listen to half of the English bands that put out records, you know they didn't just throw them together. In this country they're into sound, boy. Pink Floyd don't have to be playing no thing technically, no thing at all! But when it comes to sound you just listen and go wow! Right? You take that concept and put it together with a bit of technical variety, a lot of emotional music and rhythm and you're going to have something.'

So how about the subsequent solo albums, how did he go about putting those together? 'Well, there was no rehearsal and that may seem rather strange and counter what I said before about preparation for an album. I have not used a regular band of my own on the albums. I know exactly what I want and write down everything that is to be played. Charts for bass, piano, drums, everything. Steve Gadd on drums, Anthony Jackson on bass, Barry Miles keyboards (nucleus for his last Casino album as well as contributing to earlier two albums). They are phenomenal readers and can feel music incredibly. I think Steve is the greatest drummer that ever lived. The point is these musicians are so busy, getting their schedules co-ordinated and then to get the studio was very hard. Just to get them together for one day was incredibly difficult. So in those circumstances you just have to forget about rehearsal. I just took the charts in and did it on the spot. Went over the tunes a few times or however long it took. Also these guys came out of doing sessions all day to do my record. That approach will probably not be used again. It's too hectic for me to get them together and it is like a little bit of their steam has gone. These guys are workaholics. Working continuously because they wanna take everybody's session because they want to be on everybody's record. Now I have a touring band that I'm really happy with I'll really be checking them out and hopefully using them on my next album.'

The line-up of the band is Philippe Saisse from Paris, France (keyboards and marimba), Wlodek Gulgowski from Sweden (keyboards), Eddie Colon of New York City (timbales/percussion), Robby Gonzalez from Tampa, Florida (drums) and Tim Landers of Boston (bass guitar).

'I may use Steve and Anthony for a couple of cuts and some guests also. The majority of the playing on the next album will be done by the band I hope. Philippe and Wlodek are trained in both classical and jazz areas, really great players. This is the best band I've had so far. Unfortunately the band I had last year was totally different and didn't make it for me. It's hard to find players. Now that I've found this band I'm very happy. I have very set ways and know exactly how I want my music to sound. They have the ability to do what I want, that's the thing. For one thing there are certain sounds I want to hear. Take for instance Moog, usually a player has a personal sound that he likes to use. I normally don't allow that, especially on record. On my albums I work towards a sound that is good, after all I'm the producer. Some players totally freak out, they've got their own personal sound that they use every time they play. If it sounds good to me then I'll work with the guy but there are very few synthesiser players that can get a good sound. Then it's up to me — my record and my responsibility. I worked with Barry Miles and he had a totally different sound to what ended up on my record. Very bendy piccolo and flutesy. It's no good, I don't like it and it doesn't fit in with the rest of my music. He's such a great guy to work with. I just went out there with him and we worked out a sound, he doesn't get upset at all. He wants to make it work and he's into getting things absolutely right. It's the same with my current band, I expect respect from them for the kind of music they're playing and for myself as the producer.

'My career has gone like a sky rocket since Return To Forever and I credit it to the fact that I haven't compromised too much. Of course you have to compromise sometimes but not as much as I see a great many musicians doing, sometimes just to avoid hassle. So I've been using studio musicians because it is their livelihood to do what the producer wants. If I was the type of musician that needs suggestion all the time it would be a different story but I am lucky enough to know what I want. Now I'm really looking to have a single or two on the next album, because I think I've gone as far as I can with progressive music, in the States anyway. I've sold more records than RTF but not as many as Weather Report. My second album outsold my first but then the third one levelled out to sell the same amount as the first. If there isn't a single on my next album it's gonna sell the same again. So to hit another audience and make them hip to this kind of music, I think a single or two will help to get airplay and help the album to take off. So therefore I would consider working with a producer. I would have to be the main producer working with a guy I respect who has more knowledge than me in commercial reference. That is a touchy situation but something I would try, only on the tracks to be used as singles.'

On the point of working with musicians of Steve Gadd's calibre, I mentioned to Al that I had heard that if you want to book a Crusader or similar musician for a session, in some cases top musicians have a 2 000-dollar-a-day price tag.

'People like Larry Carlton charge 2 000 dollars a day? It depends on how many hours in a day you want them to work. I don't know any musicians that get that much on sessions. They would never have to work again if they got 2 000 for say the last three years. In the States it's still 110 dollars for a three-hour session. The most they could work is nine hours but they seldom would. Six hours is more common. Say nine hours, that's 330 dollars. Larry Carlton would make at least double scale. So we have 660 dollars plus a tag on of two or three hundred more for someone you really feel you must have. I pay double scale, in fact I think I paid triple scale for Casino, the last album. My music is a challenge to them and they want challenge music. They're doing advertising and jingles most of the time. Or commercial albums for pop stars or whatever. That kind of thing is not a challenge to them but playing with me is. Steve never talks money. He just says: Whatever you want, man.'

And what of the increasing practice of paying musicians points, an actual percentage of the artists royalties? 'If Steve and Anthony were touring with me and really part of it; records, rehearsals and the whole bit, then points are necessary because that amounts to them dedicating part of their lives to my music. But when they come in for two or three hours in and out, and they are that good that they can do it, I think they are being well paid at double or triple scale.

'Yeah, if they were heavily involved with all aspects, points would feel right to me. But I risk my ass more than anyone and should therefore reap some kind of reward. I take big losses to go out on tour, it can get into the hundreds of thousands. I am in business as well as being a musician, I'm sure you know plenty of musicians who have gone through the whole thing and come out with nothing.'

So what has the poll winning guitarist to do to get out of debt; at what point does he expect to get out of the red? 'During '79 I hope. My next album has to go gold or I may apply for a job as a waiter here at the hotel! The next one should really go platinum to really get me into a good situation. As a matter of interest I sell more records in Germany than I do in the United States.'

All three of Al's solo albums were recorded at Electric Lady in New York City with Dave Palmer engineering. Would that be the studio for the next one?

I don't know about this time, it looks inconvenient. I like living on the premises when I'm recording. I did live in the city for the last one for about two months but even that was a pain. Super-expensive; I spent a ton of money on that record. I'd like to go to Caribou for the next one and live on the ranch. They have ladies there who cook and take care of the place, it's totally relaxed. Studios in the States cost around 125 dollars an hour. But if you record at Caribou it's good because you pay a flat fee of around 2 000 dollars a day which includes food, room, board and all that. You have separate plush cabins for each member of the band. When RTF did Romantic Warrior there I had a cabin with a pool table and fireplace in the living room and five or six bedrooms.

That was my cabin alone. Big video screens for showing movies and the whole bit. I like the flat fee arrangement. Then you know you don't have to break down the equipment for that other six- or nine-hour shift. That's a pain, it's so much better to leave your equipment set up. If you like staying up late or doing a 15-hour session you can. Or you can go to sleep and let someone else overdub something. It has to be very well planned because once you're there you can't turn around and come back or start sending out for musicians to overdub, so you go prepared. I want to lay down my basic tracks there and then maybe overdub in New York City as I don't live that far away from there now. I've got a good large sound system in my house, 2-track, 4-track and soon an 8-track tape machine. Working in Electric Lady and listening back to tracks on a cassette in the hotel at night can be a bit risky.'

Al has a passion for Les Paul guitars and has used them throughout his recording career to date. He buys them selectively. He now has three, the most recent acquisition being the 1958 sunburst model he used on his latest album. He was very happy to do a deal which meant he picked it up for 2 000 dollars; normally it would cost about 3 000 dollars.

'You can plan to spend that kind of money for a Les Paul put together in the Fifties. They have better natural sustain than the new ones, it's proven. I used to wonder about that.'

The guitarist is back to using Marshall amps after a year's flirtation with a Boogie. On tour he uses up to three 100watt tops with 4x 12 cabinets. He likes to have a 'massive' sound and plays very loud to get the maximum effect of the valve amps. As these kind of volumes can be nothing short of painful for the audience in front of his speakers he has plexiglass screens to deflect the sound.

'But of course my approach toward guitar sound when recording is totally different. I know some bands like to go in and record a bass and drum track first. Wherever possible I like to record the whole band straight off. And then attend to whatever has to be done again. I normally end up overdubbing the guitars. There may be a solo I want to keep but generally I do them over again to get the sound perfect. This happens because I am also producing and like to spend my time making sure that the sounds that the other musicians are getting is right because you must get that basic track right. So I don't spend time on guitar sound on basic tracks because I need that time for bass, drums and keyboards. I haven't been lucky in the past in getting a great guitar sound straight off as soon as I walk in the studio. I think on the next album I may have that. My amps are in good shape, I've beefed up the heads, and I have a great vintage Les Paul guitar. Mind you I nearly didn't have the guitar. On the last gig I did on the last tour at Hammersmith Odeon, while I was taking a bow with the band some guy managed to crawl up under the stage; the roadies caught him making off with my Les Paul!'

Previous Article in this issue

Mike Oldfield

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Ovation Magnum

Publisher: Sound International - Link House Publications

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Sound International - Feb 1979

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Interview by Ralph Denyer

Previous article in this issue:

> Mike Oldfield

Next article in this issue:

> Ovation Magnum

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