He’s one of the most recognized and respected musicians and producers in modern rock history, having manned the console for such luminaries as The Beatles, Pink Floyd, and The Hollies in the ‘60s and ‘70s—and having sold a whopping 50 million albums with his own visionary group, The Alan Parsons Project.
He is Alan Parsons, and he’s coming back to town May 13th for a concert at Cleveland Performing Arts Center at Masonic Auditorium. He'll also do a signing on Monday, May 12th at 8 PM at Record Den in Mentor (7661 Mentor Ave., Mentor, OH 44060).
Notwithstanding the efforts of early recording pioneers like Sir George Martin (The Beatles) and Phil Spector, few people knew or cared precisely what it was producers did in the studio until Parsons helmed (or helped) behind the console—on sessions for The Beatles’ Abbey Road following an apprenticeship at EMI. He later engineered a couple Paul McCartney solo efforts (Wild Life, Red Rose Speedway) and—perhaps most memorably—assisted Roger Waters and David Gilmour in architecting Pink Floyd’s masterful Dark Side of the Moon. Parsons went on to produce several well-regarded albums by The Hollies, Cockney Rebel, Al Stewart (“The Year of The Cat”), and Ambrosia.
Eager to flex his own musical muscle (and perhaps take in the view from the other side of the glass), Parsons formed his own band in the mid-1970’s with Scottish singer / songwriter Eric Woolfson, whose sci-fi / fantasy-inspired lyrics featured heavily on such albums as Tales of Mystery and Imagination, I Robot, Pyramid, and The Turn of a Friendly Card.
Boasting members recruited from The Bay City Rollers / Pilot, The Alan Parsons Project became known for its sublime melodies, intellectual themes, and futuristic album sleeves (often designed by Hipgnosis). But the group also turned out more chart-topping pop-rock singles than you probably remember: “What Goes Up,” “Games People Play,” and “Damned If I Do” received significant airplay at the end of the ‘70s, while the Woolfson-sung “Time,” “Eye in The Sky,” and “Don’t Answer Me” ushered the band into the era of MTV. Apart from its high-profile use as the Chicago Bulls theme in the late ‘80s, the spacey APP instrumental “Sirius” was regularly employed by industry insiders when testing state-of-the-art sound systems.
Parsons and Woolfson went their separate ways in the ‘90s, with Alan issuing four acclaimed solo discs with members of 10cc (Eric Stewart), Manfred Mann’s Earth Band (Chris Thompson), and other notable players. Longtime APP guitarist Ian Bairnson developed the sky-borne concepts behind 1996’s On Air, and Parsons’ son, Jeremy, contributed to 2006’s A Valid Path.
Woolfson also continued working after the split, releasing albums inspired by his fascination with Sigmund Freud and Edgar Allen Poe. Sadly, he passed away in 2009.
The present configuration of Alan’s band (dubbed The Alan Parsons Live Project) features P.J. Olsson (vocals), Alastair Greene (guitar), Guy Erez (bass), Manny Focarazzo (keyboards), Danny Thompson (drums), and Todd Cooper (sax). Parsons himself sings and plays guitar and keyboards.
The current tour coincides with the Arista / Legacy release of The Alan Parsons Project: Complete Albums Collections box set, a gargantuan 11-CD compendium that brings together every APP studio LP (including an unreleased album) from 1976-87 for the very first time.
Parsons’ brand new single, “Fragile,” is also available now on iTunes.
The Grammy-nominated producer remains quite active, having recently teamed with several surprisingly diverse artists—including a certain ukulele virtuoso, and a former hair-metal superstar. We had the privilege of speaking with Parsons by phone last week in anticipation of his Ohio return and were treated to the inside scoop on his remarkable career even as he navigated traffic in downtown L.A. Rock’s producer laureate discussed the new APP box set, commented on ongoing and future projects, and shared his thoughts on the proliferation of lossy digital music files.
CLEVELAND MUSIC EXAMINER: Hello, Mr. Parsons! It’s quite an honor to be speaking with you. Just wanted to check in, in advance of your show here in Cleveland at Masonic Auditorium on May 13th.
ALAN PARSONS: Oh, right, yes. I’m trying to remember the last time I was in Cleveland for a show!
EXAMINER: Not sure—but the last time I saw you live was opening for Yes at Blossom Music Center, some fifteen years ago.
ALAN PARSONS: Right. Oh, that’s a while ago! We did a show with Jon Anderson. Jon opened for us as a solo artist.
EXAMINER: I spoke with Jon a couple months ago, just a brilliantly creative guy and all-around great person. So, I wanted to touch base with you on this new Alan Parsons Complete Albums Collection. Reputedly, it’s a comprehensive box set with all the albums a fan could ever want, including a buried treasure that was never released.
ALAN PARSONS: Yeah, that’s right. I believe it’s already out. It certainly is in Europe. Possibly not yet available in the U.S. [ed. note: the set is in fact available now, worldwide] But I got delivery of my first copies last week! It’s a complete set. It’s also includes a previously unreleased album called The Sicilian Defence. That was actually sort of a contractual obligation album. It was never anticipated that it would actually be released.
EXAMINER: That was back in 1979 or ’80, yes? During renegotiations with Arista?
ALAN PARSONS: Yes, that’s right. We were a little bit at odds with the label at that time, so it wasn’t really a serious attempt to make a quality album. It was all instrumental, all recorded very quickly. I’m not particularly proud of it, to be honest [laughs]! [ed. note: We’ve heard snippets of Sicilian Defence and quite like it; if you enjoy Vangelis, or liked Frank Zappa’s Jazz From Hell, you might be impressed].
EXAMINER: But the most recent work from Alan Parsons camp is the new digital single, Fragile. Could you tell us about the track?
ALAN PARSONS: Fragile is a song that I wrote with the front man of the live band, P.J. Olsson, and the bass player, Guy Erez. So it was a three-way collaboration. It’s sort of following the current trend to not release albums necessarily, because nobody seems to go for that. Statistics suggest that nobody downloads full albums, so we figured we’d do the digital download single and see what the reaction was. If we get a good reaction, then we’ll possibly think about leaning towards an album. But for the moment I’m just happy with the single. I think it’s a good song, a good piece of work. I have high hopes that it will do well.
EXAMINER: The digital single you issued a couple years back, All Our Yesterdays, kind of spoke to the human condition, in terms of where we’ve been, where we are now, and how people might make a better future together. Thematically, Fragile sort of continues along that line, addressing the vulnerability of mankind, and perhaps our relationship with the Earth.
ALAN PARSONS: Yeah. I hadn’t actually made any association between the two [laughs], but I suppose we could put them both on an album and call it a concept album! But no, I hadn’t made any connection between the two. P.J. was the lyric writer on Fragile, and I was the lyric writer on All Our Yesterdays. So that’s two lyrics written apart from each other.
EXAMINER: You were very young when you started out in the studio, with perhaps your most notable early job being an engineer on The Beatles’ Abbey Road. What was that like? It must’ve been a thrill, being an eighteen year old working with the biggest band ever.
ALAN PARSONS: I think I was nineteen or twenty when I did Abbey Road. But yeah, that was a great thrill to be trusted in a room one of the greatest bands of all time. It was tremendous. The very first time I met them, it was at their very own studio in London at Savile Row. It was the week that the “Rooftop Session” happened, so I was up there helping with that.
EXAMINER: Right! I’ve seen some still photographs from that event where the caption pointed you out in the background.
ALAN PARSONS: Yeah!
EXAMINER: Did you pick up any tips from [Beatles producer] George Martin?
ALAN PARSONS: Absolutely. I like to think that I kind of modeled myself on him. He’s the ambassador of recording. He’s a great talent, and was absolutely perfect for The Beatles. I think he rightly earned the name “Fifth Beatle.”
EXAMINER: You did some work with The Hollies after that, in the early ‘70s, and had some chart success producing the overlooked band Pilot. The song “Magic” was recently done-up for a kid’s television show, but the original has a timeless quality to it and holds up quite well today.
ALAN PARSONS: That was a bigger hit in America than it was in the U.K. But strangely though, the follow-up single was a number one in the U.K. and didn’t even make a dent in the States. Very strange. A song called “January.”
EXAMINER: The vocals on “Magic” are very dense, very lush and well-layered. You can hear some of that sound carrying over into some of the early material by Alan Parsons Project, when you started the band with Eric Woolfson in the mid-‘70s.
ALAN PARSONS: It’s funny that people have said there are links between the pop singles I did in the mid-‘70s and what became The Alan Parsons Project. It’s nothing I ever really tried to do consciously. But let’s face it, the rhythm section of Pilot was eventually in the Project, the same guitarist and bass player. And we had the same drummer on the first two albums as well. I think they can take some credit for the sound as well.
EXAMINER: Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon celebrated its 40th Anniversary last year. You worked closely with Roger Waters, Dave Gilmour, and the band on the album, which is full of “found sounds” and little extras that tie all the songs together. I recall seeing a documentary about making Dark Side—from the “Classic Albums” series—where you discuss how it truly was a hands-on experience, operating the board as an instrument unto itself, and spooling reels of tape around a room to capture sounds that could be easily added today with computers.
ALAN PARSONS: It was actually fake footage! It was recorded like, ten years ago. I did an extensive interview for that DVD. But there’s very little footage of the actual making of the album. There’s certainly very little that I appear in. There was some footage. But again, like most representations of recordings, it’s usually always faked. Because watching the making of record is actually very boring! It’s a slow, tedious process. There’s so much time listening back. Recording should actually be renamed “Playback,” because you actually spend more time playing back and listening than you do recording!
EXAMINER: What was it like for you as a musician and producer to transition from analog-based recording on tape to digital technology?
ALAN PARSONS: Well, it was kind of a gradual change. It didn’t happen overnight. We’d dealt with digital tape machines for many years, and they had a lot of the advantages of the modern-age hard disk recordings. But I’ve always stuck to old-school principles. I do use ProTools [computer software] and so on, but I still prefer to have musicians together playing as a band at the same time. So many records are made with one player performing at any one time, and I find that…it’s not real music!
EXAMINER: Right! The guitar player comes in to do a solo, and the other guys go get a ham sandwich!
ALAN PARSONS: That’s right [laughs]! I just did an album—are you familiar with Steven Wilson’s music?
EXAMINER: Sure, Steven Wilson from Porcupine Tree.
ALAN PARSONS: Right. Well, I did his last album, and that was done totally the old-school way, with everybody playing together. And it was a joy, musicians interacting with each other and doing it the way it used to be done. And Steven asked me to engineer it on the basis that he wanted to do it that way, to get those ‘70s and ‘80s sounds on the disc. And I think we succeeded; the album’s done really well and he’s asked me to come back in September, which is really nice!
EXAMINER: Apart from being a top-notch progressive rock musician, Steven’s developed a bit of a reputation for being a producer himself. I think he recently re-mastered a batch of albums for Yes.
ALAN PARSONS: Yes! He’s a very talented engineer as well as a writer and musician. He’s actually done quite a lot of surround-mixing work that I would have liked to have done myself. So we’re sort of in competition with each other on that front!
EXAMINER: Given the general switch in music consumption we touched on earlier—from cassettes and CDs to downloading—I’d like to ask your thoughts on digital formats, with respect to the compromised integrity of mp3 files, versus lossless formats. Are today’s listeners cheating themselves? Do folks literally not know what they’re missing when it comes to hearing music the way it was intended to be heard?
ALAN PARSONS: Oh, I have so much to say on that subject! If there’s one thing the consumer can be sure to hear in every situation is to get the wrong format. Mp3 sadly is…it’s a bad-sounding format that needs to go away. I’m pleased to see the resurgence of vinyl, pleased to see there are websites that offer higher-quality files than mp3. It’s worth it to the consumer the extra download time or extra few cents to get a higher-quality file, but the consumer unfortunately will always choose free or cheap as opposed to paying a premium. But yeah, mp3 absolutely has to go. It would be sad if it stayed around much longer.
EXAMINER: I realize the thing nowadays is to have music on the go. People sacrifice purity for portability so they can squeeze X number of songs on whatever device they carry with them. But my earliest memories enjoying music are tactile; I remember holding record sleeves and poring over the artwork and notes as the vinyl spun ‘round on the player. Ten years ago I started going back and picking up old albums I used to own on vinyl, and some I only ever had on cassette. Lots of aficionados seem to be turning on to vinyl again.
ALAN PARSONS: And more people should be doing that.
EXAMINER: Neil Young’s come up with a lossless device of his own called PONO. I’m not too familiar with it, but I can appreciate the effort that goes into trying to inform the public about what they’re getting—or not getting—when they buy music.
ALAN PARSONS: I don’t the world is ready to buy any one box for the sake of playing those particular files. I think another mistake the consumers are making is relying on music on-the-move, playing music in trains and on buses and stuff. Quite apart from the delivery format, the pressure on artists and producers to make the loud, LOUD record has become a problem. The heavy compression on everything, driving the meters to the absolute point of distortion.
EXAMINER: Yes, I’ve seen a few articles on that. “Brick-walling,” I think they call it, because when you look a waveform of a particular song, there aren’t any ups and downs to reflect dynamics. It’s all high. And I’ve read some articles on bands I like where fans have complained that their recent albums were subject to this process.
ALAN PARSONS: Brick wall limiting, yeah. The “level wall” we call it in the industry, as well. Everybody wants their record to be just as loud as everybody else’s. But my philosophy has always been, “If it isn’t loud enough, just turn it up!”
EXAMINER: I was surprised to see you recently did a symphonic album with—I hope I pronounce his name correctly—Jake Shimabukuro. How’d that come about?
ALAN PARSONS: Shimabukuro! He’s a genius, just an extraordinary talent. I first saw him in Santa Cruz, California. A friend said, “You’ve got to see this ukulele player!” I thought, “You must be joking! I’m going to see a ukulele player for two hours?”
ALAN PARSONS: But it was absolutely spellbinding. Amazing. We met soon after that, and I expressed interest in doing an album with him, and he jumped at the chance. So we did it. It was a really fun thing to do, and he’s a lovely guy. He kind of hadn’t really anticipated having an orchestra on his record. You know who Kip Winger is? The Kip Winger?
EXAMINER: Sure, from the ‘80s metal band Winger. But he’s done some acoustic stuff since then.
ALAN PARSONS: Well, he did the orchestra for that album. It’s a fun thing, a fun record.
EXAMINER: You were in town three or four years ago for a terrific lecture at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. You shared some musical memories and spoke for a bit on your video series, The Art of Sound Recording.
ALAN PARSONS: Yes, it’s called The Art and Sounds of Sound Recording. That was an attempt to give back a little bit of knowledge back to the industry. I mean, it’s an entire course of what goes on in a recording studio. It’s nine or ten hours of stuff. It’s really a complete television series.
EXAMINER: The DVD set is available online, but I thought folks who were interested in just one or two topics would be interested in knowing you can stream those particular videos for a fraction of the price. I saw you brought Michael McDonald on as a guest for the video on Vocals.
ALAN PARSONS: He’s a longtime friend, and he was gracious enough to come to my place and record an interview. It was great!
EXAMINER: I also wanted to clarify the band name a bit. A few years back you switched over from “The Alan Parsons Project” to “Alan Parsons Live Project.” I understand the change came when Eric left the group.
ALAN PARSONS: It was just in fairness to the late Eric Woolfson, to differentiate between what is now a live band playing Alan Parsons Project music and what was Alan Parsons Project with Eric. Because Eric’s not around anymore, we dropped the expression “The Alan Parsons Project” and just call it something else now.
EXAMINER: The “Eye 2 Eye: Live in Madrid” DVD was issued a couple years ago. Would that be a good reference for folks looking to psych themselves up for the Cleveland show?
ALAN PARSONS: Yes, it is. I should mention that we’ve got another DVD coming out this summer which was recorded in Colombia with a full orchestra. I’m not saying don’t buy the Madrid DVD [laughs], but the new one is a much better-quality show.
EXAMINER: I was just a kid when songs like “Games People Play” and “Damned If I Do” came out, and I didn’t realize they were Alan Parsons Project songs until later, after Eye in the Sky and Ammonia Avenue. Can fans expect to hear old songs like those, and perhaps some “Sirius / Eye in the Sky,” “Prime Time,” or even the “Turn of a Friendly Card” suite?
ALAN PARSONS: Certainly! We’ve started doing that as a general necessity now. Everybody loves hearing them. If we didn’t play those songs, people would ask for their money back!
***Alan will be doing a signing on Monday, May 12th at 8 PM at Record Den, 7661 Mentor Ave., Mentor, OH 44060.
*** Alan Parsons Live Project, Tuesday, May 13, 2014 at Masonic Performing Arts Center. Tickets available now: http://www.paccleveland.com/event/545103-alan-parsons-live-project-cleve...