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A Dirty Dozen with ALAN WILLIAMS – July 2020

| 29 July 2020 | Reply


According to a recent press release: “The year was 1993 and Alan Williams had just reached what most musicians only dream of achieving when his band Knots and Crosses (along with his then wife and bandmate) signed to Island Records.  Then in 1994, it all came crashing down.  After getting lost in the fray when Chris Blackwell sold Island Records to Polygram, the band was dropped, they decided to call it quits (cancelling their slated appearance at The Newport Folk Festival), and his marriage dissolved.  To put into words what he was feeling, Williams assembled a group of friends and headed to the Portland Performing Arts Center in Maine to record Evidence a collection of twelve tracks he wrote in response to all of the upheaval. But after sending out promotional copies and despite getting positive reviews in the local Boston press, Williams lost faith in the project and shelved the album. For more than two decades, he hauled a thousand CDs (which he still has today) from apartment to apartment as some kind of penitence for having such musical aspirations.” We get Alan discuss new music, influences, and much more…

Photo Credit: Adrien Bisson

1. Tell us a little about your latest release.  What might a fan or listener not grab the first or second time they listen through?  Are there any hidden nuggets you put in the material or that only diehard fans might find?

This new album is a work of resurrection. A version of the project was recorded and completed in 1995. Now 25 year later, I re-recorded my lead vocals, re-worked some arrangements, and remixed the record for stereo and surround sound. But the bulk of the recording comes from the original sessions. Of some interest might be the juxtaposition of lead and harmony vocals sung by the same voice, 25 years apart. The rhythm section basics (drums, bass, two electric guitars) were recorded live on a stage without an audience present, and the sound of the record still carries with it the energy of a band playing together in one room.

2. What got you into music, and can you tell us about the moment you realized you wanted to be a musician?

The story my parents tell, and I have a vague memory of it myself, is that they took me to see the film version of The Sound of Music when I was three, and the next day, standing next to the piano, reaching over my head without being able to see the keys, I started to plunk out the melody to “Do-Re-Mi.” So that started me on the downward spiral, I mean pathway to being a musician. The other major formative experience was when a babysitter left behind a 45 of The Beatles “I Am the Walrus,” and I was mesmerized by recorded sound, spending hours trying to imagine how such a thing was created. A quest I am still after…

3. Building on that, is there a specific song, album, performer, or live show that guided your musical taste?

Yeah – that 45 was a gateway drug to full-on Beatlemania for me. This was the mid-70’s, and I received the red and blue greatest hits albums for Christmas, which then spearheaded a collector’s obsession. First all the US albums, then the British counterparts. Likewise,  the singles and EP’s from both coasts. Then all the solo albums. Then all the Apple records catalog. Then records that any Beatle might have played on, etc. Dramatically, the whole collection was lost in a basement flood when I was in high school. This tragedy however opened the doors to music that was actually contemporary, and I was soon deep into Talking Heads, The Clash, the new-wave incarnation of King Crimson, and Prince – the artist who became my total obsession throughout the 80’s.

4. Who would be your main five musical influences?

Right, so from there the list would be: The Beatles, King Crimson/Fripp, Prince, Joni Mitchell, and Richard Thompson.

5. If you could call in any one collaborator to do a song with, who would it be, and why?

I’d be terrified, but I’d love to do something with Paul McCartney, just to see how he works. My hunch is that he is incredibly facile, moves quickly, doesn’t overwork ideas. From a different perspective, I’d love to work with Beyonce, someone whose ability to actually realize her audacious vision is staggering. How does she get these musical and visual ideas that work on several simultaneous levels, and then see them through. Of course, I have no idea how I would have anything to add, but she used some James Blake stuff on Lemonade, so maybe…

6. How would you describe your music to someone who’d never listened to you before? What is the one comparison a reviewer or fan has made that made you cringe or you disagreed with?

I feel like this new album is some weird crossroads where prog and Americana meet. Plus some old school pop. Maybe if Badfinger and King Crimson were playing on the tape deck of Gram Parson’s tour bus. People have sometimes compared my voice to Gordon Lightfoot. Not exactly hip, and I don’t really hear it. But everyone’s entitled to whatever comparisons they want to make. Just don’t call me late for dinner.

7. When your band is hanging out together, who cooks, who gets the drinks in, and who is first to crack out the acoustic guitars for a singalong?

There’s not really a band band on the record. But at the same time, I’m still making music with several of the folks that were playing with me 25 years (and more) ago. At this point, we’re so old that the dinner and drinks are generally had at the restaurant after the gig. And while I primarily play the acoustic guitar, I’m not really one for the singalongs. Unless everybody knows “Larks Tongues in Aspic, Pt. 1”…

8. When was the last time you were starstruck and who was it?

Starstruck… This will sound a little weird, but the most starstruck I have been was when I sat at a table with Simon Frith, the guy who wrote Sound Effects (along with numerous other books – some of the first serious studies of popular music), a book I stumbled on in the library when I was in high school, and which planted the idea that pop music scholarship might be a path to pursue. Three decades later, he included a chapter I had written in a book he co-edited. I couldn’t believe he had actually read something I wrote. And LIKED it!

9. What is the best part of being a musician? If you could no longer be a musician for whatever reason, what would be your dream job?

By far, the best part of being a musician is when something is communicated between musicians, when you realize you are all  riding the same wave, and if someone leans a little to the left or right, we can steer the ship with our eyes closed. Despite many years of wanting to be Stevie Wonder/Todd Rundgren/Prince, etc., I find working with other people so much more rewarding then working on my own, even though I work on my own most of the time, polishing those moments of collaborative discovery.

10. What is one question you have always wanted an interviewer to ask – and what is the answer? Conversely, what question are you tired of answering?

Is it worth it? When you add up the time, expense, and expended energy, is that fleeting moment of musical ecstasy worth it? And the answer is… depends on the day you ask me – the difference between yes and no constantly oscillates in micrometers. Fortunately, this album is coming out under my name, otherwise, the least favorite question for most bands is – how did you come up with the name?

11. Looking back over your career, is there a single moment or situation you feel was a misstep or you would like to have a “do over,” even if it didn’t change your current situation?

When I was in Knots and Crosses, we completely missed what was working for us and went after the wrong goal. We put out two records on our own that sold thousands of copies. We booked our own shows, rented venues because we didn’t fit in to the standard rock club scene. We were just one step removed from the successes of folks like Phish and Ani DiFranco who maintained independent control of their careers. If we had built upon what we were doing right, rather than trying to fit into what the major label deal entailed, we might have stayed together long enough to realize the promise of a very talented set of musicians. Of course, I ended up divorcing the lead singer and writing the songs that ended up on Evidence Unearthed as a result, so maybe on a personal level, I got out while I still had the chance…

12. If you could magically go back in time and be a part of the recording sessions for any one record in history, which would you choose – and what does that record mean to you?

Prince – “The Beautiful Ones.” Written, recorded, and mixed in a single session. A fly on the wall at Sunset Sound would have witnessed the man compose one of his most focused, yet complex songs, deliver a vocal that moves from the lightest falsetto to larynx-ripping emotional exposure, and then pull all the elements together in a coherent, detailed mix. It’s a song that doesn’t imitate anything that came before, but feels completely whole, and uniquely Prince. Many musicians can do some of what he could do, often even better than he could, but no one can do all of the things he could do, and do so well. Plus, wouldn’t you want to know what he was wearing?

BONUS QUESTION – Due to the current world situation with COVID-19 / quarantine / shelter in place, what have you discovered you miss the most from your life before the pandemic struck?

Like most of us, getting to hang out with people is the thing I miss the most. And for me, hanging out often means making music, so collective music making, without electronic mediation, masks, and social distancing. Also, the vegetarian buffet at Udupi Bhavan in Lowell, MA.




Category: Interviews

About the Author ()

ToddStar - that's me... just a rocking accountant who had dreams of being a rock star. I get to do the next best thing to rocking the globe - I get to take pictures of the lucky ones that do. I love to shoot all genres of music and different types of performers. If it is related to music, I love to photograph it. I get to shoot and hang with not only some of my friends and idols, but some of the coolest people around today.

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