The Copper Interview

Dr. Patrick Gleeson: The Interview, Part Two

Issue 132

Musician, Engineer, Producer, Professor of 18th Century English Literature?!

You may not be familiar with the name Patrick Gleeson, but he has quite a résumé. He ditched a career as a college instructor to become an electronic music pioneer in the late 1960s and 1970s. He created a synthesized version of Gustav Holst’s The Planets that was nominated for a Grammy, composed soundtrack music for television and independent films, ran a recording studio in San Francisco (Different Fur Trading Company), and was a member of Herbie Hancock’s band. Gleeson also recorded synthesizer performances of Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons and the music from Star Wars, along with collaborations with other jazz and electronic music artists.

(Part One of this interview appeared in Issue 131, where Gleeson talked about his early influences, terrifying experiences with vintage synthesizers and more.)

Dr. Patrick Gleeson.

Dr. Patrick Gleeson.

Rich Isaacs: You had mentioned that, at first, there were some uncomfortable feelings expressed by the other members about your being in Herbie Hancock’s band. Why do you think that was?

Patrick Gleeson: I was brought to the band – in their view — by the white record producers. This was part of commercializing us out of the band we really were, into something we didn’t want to be. And it was the age of Black Power. Herbie’s sister was a wonderful woman – we liked each other a lot – but you don’t have an affair with the boss’s baby sister if you want to keep your job. She teased me, saying, “You know, Pat, we’ve got Swahili names for everybody in the band but you.” She said this in front of the whole band and producer David Rubinson while we were sitting around the swimming pool, celebrating the release of Crossings. She said, “What would that be?” She knew exactly where she was going. She rubbed her chin, and said, “How about ‘Bwana?’” Now, I’ve told people that who were too young to remember what that was, but that was the name of the great white hunter in those old black-and-white movies about darkest Africa. Some of the other guys really were not particularly happy with the fact that now this band was no longer all Black. I was completely sympathetic. I didn’t have a single objection to that. Despite the fact that I’m white, I feel that jazz is a Black enterprise, and it’s been hijacked by white people, and they’re probably responsible for its decay.

All these jazz programs in elite colleges – young kids from the hood can’t even afford to go there. And these programs are often – not always, but often – taught by white people, and the people they are teaching are largely white. So how does this continue a Black tradition? Not very well.

RI: In the liner notes for Beyond the Sun, it mentions that you were given a grant by the National Endowment for the Arts to write a Concerto for Orchestra and Guitar. Whatever happened with that? Was it ever completed or recorded?

PG: No, it never happened. I think as close as I came was that I wrote some pieces for a West Coast orchestra, and we did a single live performance of that. That was a concerto for synthesizer.

RI: I was wondering why you would’ve gotten a grant for a guitar work when keyboards were your thing.

PG: Well, I don’t know – probably because Herbie recommended me. “If Herbie says the guy’s OK, we’ll give him the money.”

RI: What’s the story behind the Different Fur name for the recording studio you co-founded with John Vieira in 1968? Why was it the Different Fur Trading Company at first?

The entrance to Different Fur Studios. Courtesy of Different Fur Studios/Erin Conger.

The entrance to Different Fur Studios. Courtesy of Different Fur/Erin Conger.

PG: Ah, there’s a good story there. At the time, I was teaching at San Francisco State, and I had done some textbooks for, I think it was Little, Brown. So one textbook in particular sold extremely well – something like over 100 different colleges used it, even West Point – kinda funny. So they thought, “OK, this guy’s gonna make us some money.” So they said, “What would you like to do next?” I said, “I think I’d like to do an anthology of contemporary poetry.” They said OK, so I began constructing the premise for the book. They said, “Do you know any of these people?” And I said, “Yes, I know a lot of them.” So they suggested I go around and record them and they would release a cassette tape at the same time as the book. So the next thing, I’m in my kitchen in San Francisco with Michael McClure. I didn’t know Michael before that, but we were sort of self-styled hip guys together – all a ’60s presumption. He said, “I understand you quit teaching. What are you going to do next?” I said, “I’m starting a recording studio.” He asked what I was going to call it, and I said, “Well, I want a name that’s really different.” And he said, “Yeah, Really Different – that’s a great name!” This was a guy – some of his best-known stuff was this kind of weird surrealistic conglomeration of Billy the Kid and Marilyn Monroe and all this stuff…with lots of romantic references to the 19th century. He said, “Really Different for…Really Different Fur Trading Company.”

Rapper Tia Nomore posing with a collection of Different Fur's vintage amplifiers. Courtesy of Different Fur Studios/Amy Lombard.

Rapper Tia Nomore posing with a collection of Different Fur’s vintage amplifiers. Courtesy of Different Fur/Amy Lombard.

I remembered that Marianne Moore, the American poet, had been offered the opportunity to name this new car that Ford was coming out with, which she did. They rejected her names for the car (that included, among others,  things like “Mongoose Civique,” “Dearborn,” and “Utopian Turtletop”), and then gave it the name “Edsel,” and we all know what happened there. I was living at a musical commune at the time – we were all “communists” together — and I told them the name for our studio and they just hated it. Finally, after a little argument, I explained the whole thing about Marianne Moore and said, “We all know how that turned out. Now we have another guy who is a world-famous poet who has given us what Ford Motor Company paid $50,000 for, and he’s given it to us for nothing, and you’re saying we shouldn’t use it?” They said, “OK, but do we have to keep the ‘Really’”? They didn’t get that at all – that was a level of irony not suited to every musician. So I said, “OK, Different Fur Trading Company.” John Storyk, the guy who did Electric Lady Studios in New York with Eddie Kramer designed the studio.

Dozens of artists recorded there including Bobby McFerrin, Bola Sete, Brian Eno, Denny Zeitlin, Devo, Jaco Pastorius, Tower of Power, Phil Collins, Stan Getz, Stevie Wonder, The Residents and numerous others.

RI: You sold Different Fur in the ’80s or ’90s?

What a story those mixing board tape strips could tell! Courtesy of Different Fur Studios/Erin Conger.

What a story those mixing board tape strips could tell! Karli Helm of the bands Pllush and Diet Cig. Courtesy of Different Fur/Erin Conger.

PG: I sold it in the early ’80s to my chief engineer, Howard Johnson, and my studio manager, Susan Skaggs who, sadly, died this past year. It might’ve been from the coronavirus or dementia, maybe both. She was a wonderful woman – she was the “den mother.” People would come from all over the country just because the hang felt so good. It wasn’t a business – it was a group of hippies trying to help you achieve what you wanted to achieve out of your music. And the wonderful thing is, the guy who owns it now (they sold it eventually), Patrick Brown…. I went back there and it was exactly the same vibe; in fact, it was improved. This coronavirus may kill it off, but I’m actually hoping to do an album there with Michael Shrieve (original drummer for Santana) and Sam Morrison when this thing is over. Michael and I have already done  an album (unreleased – a longer and sadder story) and a couple of soundtracks together.

 

RI: I have some questions about the Lenny White (drummer for Chick Corea’s Return to Forever) solo sessions. Were you around for the recording of all the pieces, or just the ones on which you’re credited as a musician?

PG: All of them. I was the (uncredited) producer. The sessions were interesting because we mixed the album at Different Fur. That’s where we overdubbed the guys in Tower of Power. But we did part of the album in LA at Cherokee  and that turned out to be a real f*cked-up situation. But it had its wonderful moment. The f*ckup was: – there was a little screw-up in the studio, where we were supposed to have had a lockout [studio time blocked out] for us but they had torn down our rig after we left one night and we had to wait for them to set up the next morning. So they were very apologetic. The house engineer, who became the second on the session, to make up for things, offered everybody a line of coke, and Lenny being the artist of record, got his first. What they didn’t realize is that Lenny is a very devout Christian who didn’t even touch alcohol. He was appalled, he was just struck. Here’s Lenny, this really super hip Black jazz musician, and they just assumed drugs would be cool…The assumption really, really bothered him. As it did me. So we packed up and left.

Then the brothers who owned the studio phoned and talked Lenny into coming back. And we came back, but it was a weird moment. Then a little bit later, engineer Dennis MacKay (not the house engineer, but the engineer Lenny had hired for the LA sessions) and I were sitting at the console, and I’m presuming to mix some stuff that I wanted to hear a certain way and Dennis was kind enough to let me do it. So I’ve got my hands on the sliders and I look up and see a reflection in the glass behind me of two guys standing there. Normally, you don’t have anybody coming into your recording session unannounced. So I turned and looked back to see probably the most famous record producer of all time, the Beatles producer, George Martin. He had a big smile on his face, his arms were crossed, and he gave me a little approving nod. I went back thinking, “How can I stop this session and not make a fool of myself?” He was producing America in another one of the rooms there.

RI: Was this in LA?

PG: Yeah, and then we came back and mixed it at Fur.

RI: There are a lot of credits on the album that seem to leave out a lot of info. The studios they mention are Electric Lady, Different Fur, and Trident, and that’s it. We are talking Lenny White’s Venusian Summer here, right?

PG: Yeah. He just got back at them. He didn’t give them credit.

RI: That was an interesting guitar duel between Larry Coryell and Al DiMeola on “Prince of the Sea,” the last track on the album. Was there any friction between them?

PG: I don’t think so.

RI: Their styles are pretty different. It’s pretty easy to tell who’s playing.

PG: Oh, yeah. Very different.

RI: I also wanted to know which model of the E-Mu keyboard you used for Beyond the Sun.

PG: It was the first one that had the little Z80 keyboard to the left of the music keyboard in a little computer that looks like a telephone button pad. It was a marvelous thing because it was the first time you could play things and immediately store them in an un-tedious way. It was a huge advance.

RI: I also read a history of the E-Mu company online. I forget what the source was, but it was quite a long article. Sounds like they went through a boom and bust multiple times.

PG: Well, that’s the deal. A lot of those guys in all these synth companies became personal friends. They were interesting guys. Very bright of course, but also creative.  Nevertheless, synth companies were hazardous to the owners’ financial health.

RI: How much of a leap was it for you to go from the E-Mu to the Synclavier? [The New England Digital Synclavier was revolutionary for its time, and extremely expensive.]

PG: Not much. I think one of the good things about getting a PhD is that it forces you to learn how to acquire information. You don’t have to be terribly bright to get a PhD – my colleagues at several universities were proof of that – but you do have to learn how to digest data and make sense of it and make something with it without spending too much time on the project. It’s funny. When I sold this custom E-Mu – by the way it’s now ensconced in a synthesizer museum outside of Montreal – the buyer came up to San Francisco from LA, and when I tried to go over the plans with him – they were on four very large sheets,, each probably 3 feet by 6 feet – he said he didn’t have time because he had to get back to LA. I later heard that he could never put it all back together. He sold off the pieces, so you’d think would be absolutely the end of it.

Then another guy came along who was like a savior for this instrument. He didn’t even contact me until the end of his project. By the time he contacted me, he had spent more than a year hunting down the components, negotiating their purchase. He had gotten a million-dollar grant (not that he used it all on this) from Microsoft – or maybe the Gates Foundation – that allowed him to start this synthesizer museum, and he put the custom E-Mu in it. He phoned me after he had been working on this project for over a year and a half, and he said, “I just have a couple of questions.” I thought, “OK, I’ll at least listen before I explain that I don’t remember sh*t.” And that was indeed the case. I had to say, “it’s been four years, and I haven’t thought about this machine in that time. I couldn’t possibly tell you. You can figure it out.” Which he did – an amazing job and labor of love.

It was a very complicated machine, but once you got into it, it was obvious, it was simplicity itself. It consisted of two Sequential Circuits Prophet 10s, a large E-Mu modular synth with a double sequencer, all bundled together, and with this matrix system. Then to complicate things further, there was a special hand-built thing that one of the guys at E-Mu did for me which was, for that time, uniquely advanced – 16 extremely large synths on cards mounted in a computer bin. You would put them on a computer extender card and program it with little microtools, little tiny screwdrivers…a 36th of an inch wide. I used that. We did a little West Coast college tour as a trio with myself, sax player Lenny Pickett from Tower of Power and David Blossom, a guitar player who was also a recording engineer a Different Fur.

RI: It sounds like you had a close connection with the people at E-mu. Were you involved in the development of the keyboards at all?

PG: No, I was only involved in the development of my own system. I had relationships with all the synth guys except Don Buchla. Don was not particularly friendly to me because he did not like people playing synthesizers with keyboards. When I first found out I was going to be with Herbie, I don’t think the ARP 2600 had even been released, or if it had been, I was not aware of it. So I was thinking, I can’t take the Moog on the road, because unless you got a full-time roadie, it’s just too big and too fragile. And we had one roadie for seven guys, so that wasn’t going to happen. So I phoned Don to introduce myself. I had not known him, even though I had been playing his instruments for a couple of years at the Mills College San Francisco Tape Music Center. I explained what it was I wanted to do. He was not particularly receptive. The first question he had for me was, “how are you planning to play it?” I said, “with a keyboard.” “What kind of keyboard – a regular piano keyboard?” “Yeah, I guess so.” He said, “I’m not interested,” and he hung up. But he was the only guy that I didn’t have a close association with. All the other guys I did: Bob Moog became a friend, and Alan Pearlman (ARP) – they all came out to the studio and visited me.

RI: Wasn’t composer Morton Subotnick using the Buchla?

PG: Yes, that was his instrument. He did a wonderful job on both those albums, Silver Apples of the Moon and The Wild Bull. I love them both. And Suzanne Ciani does some nice stuff now on a Buchla – until the coronavirus stopped her, she was doing a solo tour with hers. You may want to interview her at some point – she’s survived and prospered, both artistically and financially, in an area, electronic music, that was generally dominated by white males. To do that, you had to be both talented, and strategic.

 

Header image of ARP 2600 synthesizer courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Daniel Spils.

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