The urbane Mr Palmer talks to Hank Bordowitz about crossing over from cult status to general acceptance.
Every once in a while, Robert Palmer pulls another hit out of the bag, and silences those critics who accuse him of being a pop dilettante. Currently riding high with his latest album Riptide, he spoke to Hank Bordowitz.
There are a lot of different views on what it's like to write and record a top 10 hit. Robert Palmer's Addicted To Love made number six in the UK charts, and the big number one in the US, and his response to its success is somewhat unique: "It's akin to being a father," Palmer muses, "except that there's no long term responsibilities".
Which is not to devalue Palmer's long term commitment to his music. He has had his flirtations with hits — most notably in 1982 with Some Guys Have All The Luck — and he picked up a passel of European fans with his experiments in Electro-Pop, music that Palmer claims "Kept me afloat in the rest of the world for the past five years.
"To a certain extent I feel vindicated by having a commercial success," he adds, "in that, those people who would constantly accuse me of self indulgence, I say boo to now.
"It would be vanity to suggest that my music was received as avant-garde during those Electro-Pop years," he elaborates. "It was regarded as being inaccessible and avant-garde in the States, but I don't really believe that. There's so many elements that go into crossing over from cult into more general acceptance, lots of them mechanical and business things. I've never compromised at all musically, despite whatever the fashion was. Now the wind's changed again, and I have more acceptance here in terms of record sales than I've ever had. Obviously it's a delightful side effect."
Palmer seems to delight in the fact that he has been one of those voices that has been creeping around at the edges of the Pop music consciousness throughout his career.
"It's nice to be in a position now where I can do a show and play a huge range of material, that perhaps half of the audience is unaware of. And at the same time, I often see couples in the audience nudging each other and saying 'Oh, it's him that does that.' They know the tunes, but it takes them by surprise that it's me that did them. I really like that. It means it's fresh and surprising. That's something I've built up to, and that's finally coming together."
It's this huge range of material that makes Palmer tough to pin down. He has made records in such widely different idioms as New Orleans Funk, full tilt Boogie and Synth-Pop. Yet, this isn't so much change for the sake of change as it is Palmer seeing the opportunity to do something interesting.
"Originally," he notes, "working with Little Feat and the Meters it was a matter of having to go to an existing rhythm section of which I was a fan, because I had neither the experience nor the craft of arranging and putting together a unit to make my sound more personal. In those situations, the tunes were sort of written with those particular bands in mind."
These days, people seek out Robert Palmer.
"Now the phone rings and it's somebody dropping by," he marvels.
"When the muse strikes I'm in a position to turn the machines on and catch it before the dream gets distorted"
"I don't go looking for musical projects, they come looking for me. If we get on as personalities and they happen to play an instrument, then we plug in. It just happens."
One of these exercises in karmic energy was last year's association with the Power Station. Some might suggest that his current success is on the coat-tails of that collaboration, but Palmer isn't so sure.
"It's one of these chicken-and-egg things", he declares. "The current thing that I'm doing (his Riptide tour) is giving me a lot more visibility than that did. When I look at the audience, really only 10% are obvious Power Station fans.
"On the other hand," he concedes, "since I decided to make a movie, which was, I guess, a year ago last summer, then everything I've attempted has been a notch up. But I'm really not interested in cause and effect. Things either happen of themselves or not at all. I've taken a lot of time to develop a whole load of different issues that I was working on. That, in fact turned out to be the current album, Riptide. Right in the middle of that, the Power Station came up. It was all sort of one thing, I guess. It's really difficult for me to put it into some sort of perspective. Obviously MTV has something to do with the exposure, but I think there is an inappropriate significance attached to the Power Station thing."
If that's true, maybe the time had just come for Robert Palmer. Certainly, the all-pervasive power of Rock video couldn't hurt the handsome singer, and the power station was significant in that it marked his reappearance after over two years of self-imposed silence following the release of his album Pride.
He spent the bulk of that time, until he decided to "make a move," making demos in his home studio.
"I have a work habit that I keep up," he relates, "almost on a hobby level. My rig goes on every day, and I mess around with things and put down grooves, whatever comes into my head. I keep the work habit up, so when the muse strikes, I'm in a position to turn the machines on and catch it before the dream gets distorted. You know, often you hear the thing in your head, and by the time you've fished out an instrument and put it down, you've lost it. It's like when you wake up in the morning and forget the dream that was so clear to you the second before. I just keep it working all the time, so when I get a clear idea, I jump on it right away and record the thing I hear in my head. Because of having the system at home, I can be more productive, and less inclined to inflict my experiments on the audience.
"I'm more and more interested in communicating. Without the opportunity to come up with reasonable product at home, the only opportunity you get to make music and assess it one way or the other is when you get a recording project. If you spend hours and dollars making material, but it's only halfway there, by the time you've got in the studio, you might push something through that doesn't really deserve it, and you end up embellishing it to make it go. Whereas having the ability to do that at home, you can get that all out of the way. For Riptide I had 40 songs to pick from."
"Music isn't regarded as a valid art form in England at all"
The demos Palmer makes are very comprehensive. Everything he wants on his record is musically intact before a single session is booked.
"To a certain extent, the album Pride is all me. I brought on the other players to articulate the parts, a drummer, for instance, and threw away the machine. There were various bits and pieces I wanted some experts to articulate. I'm much happier in a situation like I created for the album Riptide. I made the album Riptide myself, then brought in the players and learned it like we were going to do a gig, then we went and performed it and recorded it, taking it back round again."
Pride was self-produced, as was Palmer's previous release, the half live/half studio Maybe It's Alive.
"There's something extremely satisfying," he says, "about doing it yourself, and getting the results that you really enjoy. The drawback is that it tends to be a bit of an academic satisfaction."
To prevent the album from sounding more like it was created than performed, Palmer asked former Chic player and Power Station producer Bernard Edwards to take the helm on Riptide.
"I had to be on the floor with the band," he states, "so it would be a real performance. I needed someone on the other side of the glass to control that performance and be objective, somebody who draws out a performance, rather than an engineer, button pusher, producer, which most of them are. Bernard focused things."
Riptide has a live-in-the-studio feel, and for good reason — he rehearsed the band for two weeks until they knew the material cold, and then they plugged in and played the set.
"By the time the light came on," Palmer laughs, "it was like 'Whoopie! Let's play!'"
"I don't go looking for musical projects, they come looking for me"
Despite this alleged simplicity, a careful check of the liner notes to Riptide reveals that it was recorded in no less than half a dozen separate studios.
"What happened there," Palmer explains, "was when the bulk of the parts, including my vocals, were finished, rather than watch over their shoulders while they mixed it, I went off to Italy on holiday. When I got back six weeks later, nothing had been done which was puzzling. At that point, I called up ET Thorngren and we grabbed the tapes. I had to redo one of the vocals, then we took the list of parts and mixed it. We were just stealing nights here and there in whichever studio we could get. It was done Sony digital, and we worked close monitor, so it really didn't matter which room we were in. We just carried the machine and the tapes with us. As long as it had an SSL board, we were happy."
And now, with Addicted to Love and I Didn't Mean To Turn You On having made their mark on the singles charts, he is bound to be happier still. He has taken Riptide on the road, in a show that will feature the 14-piece Kit McClure Big Band in several venues.
"It's really a bitch of a thing to do," admits Palmer, "but that doesn't put me off the attempt. We didn't record the big band because it came close to being Linda Ronstadt."
Among his current influences, Palmer cites acts with a decidedly hard Rock flavour like Husker Du, Q5, Accept and The Scorpions. Inspired by these bands, the prevailing winds, and guitarist Eddie Martinez, the next musical direction Palmer is going to take is an album of Heavy Metal.
"We're going more and more in that direction," Palmer claims. "I don't really know why. It just feels good. I mean I'm not about to start singing tunelessly and with no melody, but I like the fidelity. I'm doing my next album with Dieter Dierks, the German Heavy Metal producer (Scorpions, Dokken). It's going to be called Heavy Nova because half of it is going to be Heavy Metal, the other half is going to be Bossa Nova."
If this constant shifting of styles is disconcerting, there is a consistent thread that ties all of Robert Palmer's music together.
"Syncopation in the bottom end of the rhythm," is how he describes the underlying principle of everything he does. "I get a direct relationship between the bass drum and the melody line. The rest of it is all decoration and atmosphere. Hyperactive on the Riptide album, is really interesting, because it's ensemble playing. The melody line against the bottom end is very syncopated, very sophisticated, but it sounds very straightforward. I had lots of trouble with the song Trick Bag, because it was in a hole, in a time warp. I suddenly discovered that if I reversed the beat, the vocal had an anchor. When I play live, that's all I have in my monitor — the bass drum."
Being in demand has allowed Palmer to pick his projects. The next thing he's up to is producing an album by the Comsat Angels, one of the few English bands today that Palmer finds worth the effort.
"Generally," he says, "I find the stuff so... provincial... unhygienic... unhealthy. It seems to be fuelled from the wrong end. The whole thing over here seems to be some sort of fashion competition, and the business is backwards as well. Music isn't regarded as a valid art form in England at all. It's a bit circusy. There's no discipline about it. Instead of getting serious about it, they get solemn."
But the thing Palmer is most looking forward to right now, is moving his home and family from their current base in the Bahamas to a lakeside chateau in Switzerland. His current success has made this difficult, and he's put it off until after he finishes touring. In that way, how Robert Palmer sees his music describes the way he lives: "The hardest things to do," he says, "are the simplest."
Interview by Hank Bordowitz
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