Disciples of Sound

The X Factor: Richard X. Heyman

Issue 137

I discovered Richard X. Heyman by chance, really. Upon release, the cover of his 1988 debut album Living Room just kind of caught my eye as I was browsing through a record store. Looking like a mix between a young Keith Richards and a member of the Small Faces, the image of Heyman on that cover was the perfect welcome to what has since become a thirty-year appreciation of great power pop music.

There I found a complete artist whose music was bright, upbeat, and full of an energy that was simply contagious, striking a chord as deep as the 1960s bands that inspired his sound. You can hear the influence of British Invasion groups, West Coast pop, Motown, and New York-based bands like the Rascals. These all come together in a manner that is quite singular, delivering a dynamic that he has carried forward with each new album.

Heyman is about to release his fourteenth studio record. Titled Copious Notes, the record finds Richard X. Heyman in a familiar sonic place. His trademark wall of guitars and keyboards is balanced by orchestrations that include brass, woodwinds, strings and big, bold drum parts. Along with his wife Nancy, who engineered and played bass on many tracks, Heyman played all instruments and completed the album at their home studio, The Kit Factory. The songs range from melodic pop to all-out rock and roll with just a few ballads to round things out. The results are extraordinary with some already calling Copious Notes one of his best to date.

 

Richard X. Heyman, Copious Notes album cover.

Copious Notes. Album cover artwork by Marsha Silvestri.

 

Over the years, Heyman has augmented his solo work by taking on drumming duties behind artists like Link Wray and Brian Wilson. As a guitarist, he performed with Mary Weiss of the Shangri-Las, and played keyboards with Ben E. King. These experiences have informed his creative process, have helped his craft continue to grow, and have taken his art to even greater heights.

We spoke with Richard about the new record, his many musical influences, and about the centerpiece to his musical journey – drumming. The exchange was a wonderful reminder of how his music has always transcended what is popular by shimmering with an originality that warrants broader discovery.

Ray Chelstowski: The video you released to tease the new record playfully addressed the album-naming process. What actually inspired the name?

Richard X. Heyman: Well, I have used puns in my titles in the past and that phrase just came to me. “Notes” has a good double meaning in that you have the kind of notes a college student is taking in a lecture hall. Then you have the musical notes. I felt that it applies to the lyrics, to the music, and then I thought of the visual of me made just out of notes, which we did for the album artwork.

 

RC: Are these all new songs or did you have some older material that you revisited?

RXH: Well, the album reflects [being in] quarantine and the past year, a sense of isolation and the mood of the entire pandemic era we had been living in. You couldn’t escape it. That kind of crept into the music. What happened was that I had put out my previous album, Pop Circles. After that record came out I experienced a kind of burnout and I lost interest in putting out any more music. This went on for months and months. Then the pandemic hit. It wasn’t a case of writer’s block. I just didn’t want to do any music for some reason.

Then one day I just started noodling again on the piano and some ideas came. Every now and then Nancy would stick her head in the door and when she heard something she liked she’d ask, “What’s that?!” That became the cue for what I should demo. So things got started with what were all just piano instrumentals. Then I decided to try and turn some of them into songs. I went back and found the song “Choices We Make.” That was a song we had recorded earlier for another album. We didn’t include it then because we weren’t getting it just right. This time I decided to try horns on it and that seemed to do the trick so we put it on the album. The rest are pretty new. There is one song called “Sink Or Swim” that was a song that I had done with The Doughboys. That was actually a “Coolest Song in the World” on Little Steven’s Underground Garage. So I thought that I’d take a crack at trying it myself.

RC: When you released your first album, Living Room, over thirty years ago, was it your plan to build a career against a power pop sound that continues to tip your hat to acts like the Beatles?

RXH: I didn’t think it through that seriously. I just have my influences. Some I wear on my sleeve, others I tuck inside my pockets. I just do what I can do. I try to write songs that kind of move me in a certain way and they tend to be influenced by early rock and roll. I kind of rejected where it all was going after that. Some stuff from the 1970s I like a lot of course. But in general, the 1960s produced music that was not only of high quality but very popular at the same time.

RC: That said, are there any acts that catch your attention that tap into those same inspirations and make new music?

RXH: Well, I’m so attached to the baby boomer ethics of the 1960s. That had a direct impact on me. I always go back to that more than contemporary music, because the baby boom generation were the fans of the really great era of rock and roll. There’s no one who can hold a candle to say someone like Ray Davies or Bob Dylan. Now that’s not to say that there hasn’t been some really great music since that era, but that’s the music that inspires me. I keep coming back to it.

I did have a period where I was really listening to Sufjan Stevens. I thought he was an interesting new artist. There’s still a lot of good music being made but you have to seek it out. I’m always open to hearing new music but it rarely holds up because I end up comparing it to the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks or the Who. That’s a pretty tall order.

RC: You release records on your own label and are known as a perfectionist in the studio. How do you know when an album is done?

RXH: I never make that decision; Nancy does. There’s that old saying that “art is never finished. It’s only abandoned.” That’s the way it is around here. You keep nitpicking, going after some perfection that you can’t attain. That’s just the way I look at it. I just keep trying to get it as close to that as possible. At some point though you just have to abandon it and say, “we’re done!” That’s where Nancy steps in (laughs) and it works out well.

RC: For those not familiar with your music, which song from the new record would you recommend as a good point of entry to your catalog?

RXH: I always put the song that I want people to hear first, first. So I would say “Nearly There” is a good example of what I do. So is the last song, “The Greater Good,” Even though it has horns it’s in the style of music that I do best.

 

RC: How has being a sideman for some really big acts impacted your own music and career?

RXH: I think the thing that I gain most from those experiences is getting to understand what type of people they are, their personalities and the ways [in which] they interact with other people. That’s very inspiring, like Mary Weiss from The Shangri-Las. She’s a nice, fun person and very easy to work with. I played drums for Link Wray back in the 1970s and it was the same thing. He’s such an interesting person and dedicated to his craft. It’s more that side of it. Musically, people do things that are unique to them. But there’s nothing more fun for me than being in a situation where you get to play a song that you’ve heard on the radio. There’s something magical about that.

RC: You play many instruments, but which one in particular gives you the greatest pleasure?

RXH: Oh the drums for sure, also because I’m the most proficient on it. It was my first instrument. It just comes naturally to me, whether I’m playing them with my own stuff or as an accompanist. After that it would be piano, because with just one little movement of your fingers you’re hitting chords that you would never even dream of on guitar. Most of my new music was written on piano and sometimes entire songs were transcribed to guitar, so the piano is buried in there. In those moments it’s an anchor to the mix but you can’t even really hear it anymore.

 

Richard X. Heyman on drums. Photo courtesy of Nancy Leigh.

Richard X. Heyman on drums. Photo courtesy of Nancy Leigh.

 

RC: How has your drum kit evolved over the years?

RXH: I started with your basic kit. Then at some point I was inspired by Mitch Mitchell who was in the Jimi Hendrix Experience [see our article about Mitchell in Copper Issue 136 – Ed.]. He was playing with a double floor tom and I thought that was interesting because I always liked the way Buddy Rich had two floor toms. There was a period where I did the double bass and the three toms across – à la Keith Moon. Then I got into very large drums, inspired by John Bonham. I went really big. I had a 28-inch bass drum. Now I’ve settled into using 24-inch bass drums, with a single tom and double floor toms. That’s how I have been playing for the last decade or so.

RC: As a lifelong Beatles fan, where does Ringo Starr rank among your top drummers of all time?

RXH: He sits very high. I’d put him in my top five of rock inspirations. He did the job and played what was right for the songs. He also had unbelievable timing. The fact that they wouldn’t think twice about doing an edit [splice] between two different takes is because they assumed that Ringo had nailed it, and he always did. And like [Beatles producer] George Martin has commented, not only was his playing great but the sound that he got out of his drums was fantastic. His use of cymbals and his decisions on when to play fills or just do a solid back beat are in part why he is so amazing. I’m also a fan of Dino Danelli from the Rascals. He’s got a groove that’s all his own. It’s soulful and he’s the best showman of them all.

RC: What do you want to accomplish with Copious Notes?

RXH: The most complimentary review that I ever received was when someone said that there was joy in my music. That meant a lot to me because that’s what it’s really all about, making people feel good. That’s the magic of music!

 

Header image of Richard X. Heyman courtesy of Nancy Leigh.

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