Interview Van Dyke Parks: ‘Stuff Just Happened To Me. I Was A Fortunate Brunette.’

Van Dyke chats with us about projects old and new.

Chiefly known as Brian Wilson’s collaborator and lyricist on The Beach Boys’ lost classic ‘Smile’, Van Dyke Parks has been an eminent American musician, composer and arranger for 40 years, producing Randy Newman’s debut album, arranging Joanna Newsom’s ‘Ys’ and The Shortwave Set’s ‘Replica Sun Machine’, scoring a number of movies and releasing striking albums of his own. He has continued to work with Wilson sporadically, but is in London to promote a series of 7” single releases and play a gig at the Union Chapel (16th May) before heading off to Europe. A thoroughly capital fellow, Van Dyke took the time to chat with us about projects old and new, and tantalise us with details of the long-awaited official release of the original ‘Smile’.

How long have you been in London, Mr Parks?
I came here from Prague yesterday. I conducted an orchestration I did for a new Australian group, and before that I was in Berlin on the advisory board of an arts organisation. So life is good. At my stage of the game, music is taking me to a lot of places I never would have dreamed of going.

What can we expect from the Union Chapel gig?
I want to beat up a piano. I wanna drop it. I heard at first it was going to be an exorcism, then I think they said it could turn into a circumcision, but I was just praying that it would not end up a crucifixion. But I’m game and I’m really looking forward to it. The group supporting me – Clare and the Reasons – give the room elevation and, once they’ve done their set, the audience is in a rapture. I just come on and sing the songs that have spanned my life and promote my career. If not now – when? And Clare and The Reasons stick around for my set and we raise the dust.

You’ve got some new material too – a run of singles.
It’s a series of six new 7” singles that will all be delivered by September and they’re very beautiful, retro. It’s like a defiance – a fixed, hi-fi, stereo event. Time to throw out that damned jewel box.

They’ve all got dedicated artwork. Was it specially commissioned?
No, not commissioned – contributed. I’d hoped to have the artwork for the London show, but they went back for colour correction and that delayed it. But at least the colours will be correct! It’s all impractical, but I wanted to celebrate what I thought was an artform, as the music industry continues to collapse into itself. In a digitalised, non-tactile environment, I wanted to bark. I wanted to bite the ankles of progress and just slow things down. That’s why my hook is niche. So I’m feeling very nouveau niche.

Well, it’d be a shame to see the back of lovely packaging.
It all looks good. My modest vanity label. I’m also bringing out a collection of the arrangements I’ve done, a composite of artists, and I have the cheek to call it ‘Volume 1’. I really want to explore my life as an arranger, and I’m astounded and delighted to be here in London to do that, and to be here to see Brian Wilson and Randy Newman [both in London at the same time]. They came over and we talked and posed for a picture. You know, I produced Randy’s first album and of course I worked with Brian on the ‘Smile’ project. So it was really very nice and companionable. And now The Beach Boys are bringing ‘Smile’ out themselves, the originals. It’s a big deal! I held a prototype of the packaging: it’s amazing, like a Fabergé egg. Now that nobody can sell a record, you notice how high end it’s gotten?

So, how did your life in music begin?
I learned clarinet and piano by the age of 10 and worked hard at music up until the age of 20, when I stopped working with serious music and got serious about unserious music.

Were you always writing lyrics?
No, I wrote my first song in 1963. That was the year Bob Dylan did his ‘Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’ and there was the first album from The Rolling Stones [VDP namechecks ‘12x5’, the Stones’ second US release, in 1964]. It was a very big year for music and I was playing nylon string guitar. If I were starting out today, it would probably be alternative music. Anyway, I was doing folk music with nylon string guitar, lots of songs in Spanish, and I just learned music! But Dylan came out and he was playing steel string guitar and taking music in a steel string direction – so that’s when I decided I would become an arranger. I wrote my first song, which got some notoriety up at San Francisco with the psychedelic Jefferson Airplane crowd, and started building a name for myself. I ended up in the studio doing work for other people and having a ball, and I was on The Byrds’ ‘Fifth Dimension’. Stuff just happened to me. I was a fortunate brunette.

How did you meet Brian?
I met Brian on the yard of Terry Melcher, who was a producer of surf music like Jan And Dean and Paul Revere and the Raiders, who were supposed to be a retort to the Stones – there was a sibling rivalry between the Brits and the Americans. Anyway, Brian needed a lyricist. It was really the only thing he needed doing, because he could do everything else. So I did lyrics with Brian, and The Beach Boys have finally decided to release that record this year, that beautiful box set.

It all went to pieces at the time – the band rejected it.
Yes, but you know something? None of that is worth a bucket of spit where I come from. I don’t think you do things for praise. You do what you feel is the right thing to do, be true to yourself. I was delighted to work with Brian and for me that’s the way I approach work. It’s an honour to do music. Of course I was disappointed, I admit that, but I felt that I had prospered, that the cup was certainly half full, just through being able to work with Brian.

Did it amuse you at all, the legendary status ‘Smile’ attained in the years afterwards? It became the holy grail, the great lost album…
(Laughs) I know! I think that’s a good thing and I take no possession of that. I do ‘Heroes and Villains’ in the show, of course – I do it entirely differently from the way that the Beach Boys would do it. It’s a good song, but all that music that they’re finally releasing – it takes up three LPs, that’s a lot of music – enjoys its status, I think, because it’s born of a certain innocence and exuberance. I think it’s empowering. And it’s total technicolour, widescreen technicolour and cartoon consciousness. Maybe there’s a brand of courage there, a derring-do. So yes, I learned from whatever mistakes I made. They have an expression in Japan that “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down,” and ‘Smile’ was like that. It was like a rusty nail sticking out. That’s the inconvenient truth, as Al Gore would’ve called it. I think its status is a product of public imagination more than anything else and I’m delighted to share that moment.

How did you and Brian come to work on the 2004 version?
Well, we’d worked on ‘Orange Crate Art’ [1995] over at Warners and I think that was the moment when Brian decided he could go back into a studio. That was a watershed moment and so when somebody finally hit him over the head – I think it was public opinion – he saw that the work should be addressed rather than hidden from view. So that was when I got a call to talk about finishing the work. It was just as easy as A to Z, to be honest. I’d like to say it was like a thousand Tibetan monks with one strand writing the Lord’s Prayer on a piece of rice, but there was no great phenomenon – we just did it, we finished it, we tidied that place up. It was a lot of fun to do that, like rolling off a log. It was a moving experience for me in so many ways and I still believe the work is dynamic enough, that it will migrate to another generation, who will maybe even record it in a different way. I think that people will take possession of it.

Back to recent history, you’ve worked with Joanna Newsom.
Yes, but I’ve gotta remind you, I haven’t worked a day in my life – I’m a musician. I’ve worked for Joanna, that’s as close I can say. And of course I put my heart into the work, and I worked very hard to try to surround her and give her space and power and definition.

She comes across as someone very sure about what she wants.
She’s very explicit in what her intentions. That’s why they call her an artist, because she is easy to read and you can see that she is a very able communicator and it doesn’t take a hell of a lot of instruction. Quite frankly, I got what I needed from her on first blush.

And you worked with Danger Mouse on The Shortwave Set’s ‘Replica Sun Machine’ [2008].
Danger Mouse is a MONSTER. He’s just a great, very talented man – so modest, so worldly. The guy is alert and very talented and I was amazed by him.

And he’s doing such a variety of work – now working with another arranger, Daniele Luppi.
Yeah, that’s just great.

Your new tracks have got that old-fashioned, romantic sound. Is there a unifying theme?
A theme? No. I just don’t want to take up too much of anybody’s time. To do the irreducible minimum and still have a through-line. You know, like, get a cat up a tree, get a cat down stuff. Boy meets girl stuff. But some theme is there – it’s decidedly retro, defiantly retro. The inclusion of a calypso song, an old one, for instance. But this is new territory, all of these are sprints. It’s not an album. I’m not doing that. I’m doing a collection of 45s with great sleeve art by great American artists [including Art Spiegelman, Frank Holmes and Ed Ruscha], so when you take off the shrinkwrap that has my name and the title on it, you’re left with something to look at that’s highly original. That to me is a work of art. I’m very fortunate to be part of this project. One of the covers is of two lifesize statues that were carved of me. Just a picture of them. So you can see I’ve come a long way since 1963. It’s a wonderful blessing for me to be doing music, new music, in the face of a collapsed industry, and meeting people and going places that I would never have dreamed of going. So I thank you for this.

‘Dreaming Of Paris’ will be released on 7” in August, with the rest of the series to follow shortly. Van Dyke Parks will be playing London’s Union Chapel on Monday 16th May.

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