Sunday, 7 April 2019
Mick Dillingham Interviews : Philip Price
Winterpills main man, the beloved song-writing genius that is Philip B Price has been busy putting up the long promised collection of rare archive releases on Bandcamp, all lovingly remastered and meticulously remixed with more to follow soon. It's all wonderful stuff. A massive treasure-trove of musical delights including nine pre Winterpills solo albums, previously hardly available only on cassette in their time.
As well as that he has revisited his two post Maggies solo albums, the sublime Honey In The Chemicals and 13 Songs For Right Now and fleshed them out with additional instruments and overdubs, making them even greater. Then there’s a previously unreleased third album of material that got shelved when Winterpills got up and running.
Talking about Winterpills, how does six volumes of truly delightful demos, one for each of their albums, strike you? With a brand new album on the horizon, it’s time to sit down with this hugely talented individual and enjoy the pleasure of his fine company for awhile.
So what first motivated you to start this project of touching up and releasing your early cassette only releases finally?
"I’ve been wanting to do it for years. I derive a lot of inspiration and ideas from my past; I’m somewhat helplessly nostalgic, which I know is a killer, but it’s how I’m built. I’m not unrealistic about the past; I’m more fascinated with dissecting it as if I was a forensics expert who could solve all the riddles of existence by looking merely backward. I somehow envision all the answers to my baffling life are buried there.
Anyway - these cassette releases were, at the time of their making, my only real musical outlet. My band Memorial Garage was dead; I was a single dad, living in rural New Hampshire and upstate New York, working shit jobs and trying to survive. If I was serious about my music career I should have moved to a big city like New York or LA and dug in. Instead I stayed isolated, agoraphobic, sealed off from the world.
I still maintain that as much love as I have for these albums, I probably would have been writing better music if I had been immersed in a creative community with some lines of communication and competition to stimulate me. That said, the isolation also served what I created in different ways that I think is still valid and sometimes great. Also, what’s done is done.
Another angle to view this all from is that I had been a studio art/lit major in college (painting, printmaking and poetry — the three p’s). There was no music scene that I was pulled into or emerged from; all my friends were visual artists and writers, and wilfully uncommercial in their tastes and lifestyles. As someone considering a life making rock/pop music, I was a genuine outsider.
So, yeah, all this music that was ever properly released, never mastered, but a crafted, considered body of work that wasn’t pure shit. After Winterpills, after The Maggies, I looked at it all again and felt it deserved exposure. It was more than just bedrock (I have bedrock songs. Hundreds. They will likely remain bedrock and compost). I wanted to re-release it all, but not in its state of poorly transferred digital files from third generation cassettes. I wanted to respectfully remix it from scratch, and I had all the tools."
What source material did you have to work with?
"I’ve tried to keep every tape I ever recorded. I have a huge library of all my original 4-track and 8-track multi-track tapes and the machines that I recorded them on. I knew I would reach this point someday, so I was prepared. The process was pretty straightforward: I ran all the 4 track tapes through my digital audio interface and ripped all the separate tracks into my DAW (Logic Pro). Some were in much better condition than others, but for the most part all the tapes were in good shape.
Then I began remixing, running tracks through good compressors and EQ that I did not have at the time, cleaning things up as I went but being very mindful of leaving in pretty much everything, performance and decision-wise. While I couldn’t recreate my younger brain as far as decision-making, I did try to respect what I imagine I would have done."
Were some more straightforward than others to remix?
"One of the assets of the 4-track medium is it blissfully limits the kinds of decisions you can make by definition. Which means many of the songs were very easy to remix; I had already made so many of the decisions back then. A lot of tracks were already combined or bounced tracks, meaning they had drums/guitars on a single track, or bass/keyboards and then vocals were limited to a single track, sometimes alongside a tambourine or something else I could not separate them from. All I had to do was get them sounding as best as I could, maybe edit out some bleeds or noise.
Running these things through proper pre-amps, compressors, EQ and touches of reverb went very far in pulling the sound closer to the ‘modern ear’. That said, some were genuine challenges. Some songs were impossible to deconstruct because I was learning how to engineer at the time and made amateur mistakes that even modern technology couldn’t undo."
Were you tempted to change bits or did you try to be true and loyal to the original recordings and the vision of your younger self as much as possible, even when it made you wince a bit?
"This is a tricky area; I would say that I left in about 98% of every good and wince-worthy decision I made. But I was inspired by Walt Whitman, who edited his life’s work endlessly until the day he died: I can do whatever I want with this body of work that almost no one in the world had ever heard anyway. So giving myself total freedom to fix anything I had always hated (and that was a factor in not releasing this stuff earlier: embarrassment).
I ended up doing very little of that. I think I changed two or three single words of awful lyrics over the twelve albums that had always made me feel ill. That was actually a fun technical challenge by itself, and felt very bizarre: fixing a single sung lyric on something I had recorded almost thirty years before on a crappy system, using all my nice new modern gear.
I had to reverse engineer and dumb-down my system. I had to degrade it deliberately. But I did it on two songs and I dare anyone to find it. There’s maybe one dude up in New Hampshire who is a collector who might take issue with it, but I haven’t heard from him! (ed note: he did hear from him. The ears on that guy!)"
It must have quite a strange experience visiting your musical past, did each album take you back to a time and a place and were various memories being invoked?
They very much did and that is yet another factor in why it took me so long to get here. So many of these songs came from a time in my life that was by far the most difficult. Not to sugarcoat it, I went through an awful divorce and custody battle and it dragged on for years. I was also suffering from pretty severe anxiety disorder and depression, all kind of under-diagnosed and untreated. I am guessing that making music during this time was how I survived it all."
Some musicians never listen to their albums once they are done and dusted, and others do. What camp do you fall into?
"I go through periods of intense re-listening to all my music. I’m a fan. But I can’t do it all the time. When I’m writing a lot, I listen to my demos obsessively. It’s the best music in the world to me. Once an album is finished, though, I’ll probably sign off on listening to it for a couple years. I always circle back, though."
When was the last time you listened to these albums? Were there any surprises or any songs you did not remember at all?
"I always gave at least a few of those albums a listen every few years or so, but I kept bumping into their harsh, thin sound quality and that kept me from hearing the songs. I remembered every song; while my memory is foggy in other areas, the musical part of my brain is like a steel trap. When digging through the multi-tracks, though, there were a few rejected songs I had forgotten about. Some were good, I’ve tagged some of those for future remixes of deeper cuts that I will release, somehow."
Listening back, where would say you first worked out the templates for the musical style that suited your individual talent best and start walking your own unique musical path? When did you finally nail the technique of singing like ‘Philip Price’ or was it more natural than that and just evolved as you continued to create?
"I don’t think it ever stops, the search for an authentic voice. All the music I’ve ever made has been a slow stripping away of veils to reveal some kind of truth. I know my singing changed a lot after my father died in 2001. I think being turned inside out like that can free up things in your body and are then reflected in performance.
In the earlier music (like Memorial Garage and these re-released albums), I also had clear reference points for my singing: Bryan Ferry, David Byrne, Bowie. By the time of Winterpills I’d submerged myself in Elliott Smith, Leonard Cohen, which had given me permission to find more nuance in the quieter parts of my voice.
I’m never happy with my recorded voice, though. It sounds too much like me, even if that’s exactly what I’m trying to achieve! Not for the faint of heart or the excessively vain, this work."
You were creating music for all those years in a vacuum and when you finally have a band, The Maggies, to write for, not just pleasing yourself brings a consistency to you creatively. It feels to me that The Maggies finally focused your songwriting and confidence of approach, the unique directions from which you’ve never looked back. Where your majestic melodic abilities, warmth and romance finally become consistent and recognisable
Collaboration will do that and I agree. It will focus you in ways you can’t yourself. Music is naturally collaborative, the way I’ve approached music says a lot about how my process has been affected by being a painter or writer: those are very isolating disciplines. I took all that with me when I embarked on music, for better or for worse."
There are times on the earlier solo albums and even on Harpies, there’s a few isolated tracks here and there that I wouldn’t immediately guess were you if they were played to me cold…. Like aporias, paths that lead nowhere, that all get wiped away by your time with The Maggies.
"I actually had to go look up that word, ‘aporia’ and now I want to make an album called that. I guess you could argue that all this old music is a way of finding old paths that have overgrown and at the very least pointing them out, leaving a stone marker in the overgrowth. Who this is useful to?, I have no idea.
I love those Maggies albums so dearly and the blank spot here for me is the earlier Maggies albums since I haven’t as yet heard them. You talk about the influences on those early Maggies albums which make me feel I’ll be not so keen on them and how it was only when you got to the albums Homesick and Cryptic Valentine that you fully embrace the pop influences. Yet going back to Roped and Harpies, there are songs and arrangements on both that unmistakably sound like The Maggies I know and love. Duct-Tape Tight, I take as another Maggies album in it's entirety and yet I’m assuming that despite you labelling all the tracks as 1999 these songs in fact span a few years. Am I worrying about those early Maggies albums unnecessarily?
"Probably! I am creature who is easily influenced and yet it seems sometimes others don’t see the influences like I do. So when The Maggies first started in 1993, I was the leader and songwriter but also by far the oldest person in the group. I think everyone else was twenty-one and I was thirty-three with two kids and had already been making music for about a decade.
Hence, the dynamic was interesting, the younger ones in the band brought their own influences in, which reflected a lot of what was going on at the time, musically. Primarily, bands like Nirvana, Throwing Muses, Tanya Donnelly’s band Belly, Scarce. I loved all that music too (particularly Throwing Muses and Scarce), so when you hear the first lineup, you will hear my songwriting filtered through some of those attitudes.
That lineup made an EP and two full-length albums in the span of a year before two of the members left (Rich Dart, who went on to become the drummer for new version of The Monkees, and Julie Keller). Then it was just Max Germer and myself looking for more musicians to play with. When we Found them, we became a scruffy garage band doing the kind of pop that the later version of the band polished up."
So, you won’t hear any massive shifts, more like a gradual refinement. Some people in our local scene actually feel like the ‘garage band’ power trio version of The Maggies was the best. In remixing that stuff, I almost agree! I really wish we had recorded that version of the band properly; everything was 4-track cassette. But this was also the heyday of Sebadoh and Liz Phair’s ‘Exile in Guyville’ so recording your ‘real’ albums on 4-track was all the rage.
As for Duct-Tape Tight, you are correct; those song were all written between 1995 and 1999, but I had assembled a version of that album in 1999 for my own personal listening, so that’s when I feel like the idea for Duct-Tape was birthed. It’s all a bit arbitrary.
Before my son was born, I got about 75% of the way done in remixing the old Maggies stuff. So, there is: The Tulip EP, No Footprints In Heaven (album), Misinterpreted (album), Dance For Daddy EP, Brittle (album), Experimental Cinema (album), Summer's Gone (album).
One of the conundrums facing me at this point is that there is a fair amount of repeated material on these recordings. They represent three lineup changes, and each lineup would take a stab at re-recording some of the better songs – Hence, there is three versions of the song The Dog, two of Skin Horse, etc etc. I could just release all the versions or pick the best one and leave off the others. I haven't decided yet."
Now you know I simply adore Honey In The Chemicals and 13 Songs For Right Now and love the Redux versions that you’ve done to the point that these are the only versions I’ll listen to from now on. You took two perfect albums and improved them. At the time I remember they sounded like what they were….solo albums by the bloke from The Maggies…different from The Maggies in how you approach the songs and feel.
Like you said to me once, Elliott Smith opened the door for you in what was now acceptable. Winterpills sound like the bloke who did those two solo albums, now expanded to a perfect band. Come Through This is a real treat, but what happened to the other unreleased solo albums "Eleventy-Twelve" and "The Drug Songs”?
"13 Songs and Honey In The Chemicals were made in one big rush of writing and recording during this two year period. In my mind they aren’t really separated from each other; more like a two chapter novella.
13 Songs For Right was originally released in a somewhat unfinished, rushed state. After The Maggies split, I was so eager to get something out that I pulled this collection together and pressed it up. I was also headed out on tour with John Wesley Harding and needed something to represent what I was doing. I've never liked how unfinished the original version of this album sounded.
So, two years ago, I went ahead and finished it. Mostly that means instruments were added and bass parts that were originally cheap keyboard bass were replaced with real bass guitar parts etc. It was now properly mixed on much better gear. Other changes too. To me, now, it's sounds as it should have at the time. Purists can keep both versions of the album and argue about it forever. To me, this is the real version of the album.
Much like it predecessor Honey In The Chemicals was another unfinished-sounding album to me. Not as rushed as '13', but I was eager to follow up on what I thought were the weaknesses of '13' that this one was almost as hurried. More ambitious and cohesive, but still frustrated me. Like I did with '13', I've added real instruments where there were previously shitty synth basses and inferior drum samples, etc. Remixed it on much better gear. Arrangement ideas fleshed out that were just hinted at before. This to my ear is also the real version of the album.
Big secret! If you took Come Through This and then the first Winterpills album, re-arranged the songs and slice them into two albums, you then have Eleventy-Twelve and The Drug Songs. Except you have to use the demos for the first Winterpills album, which are also available on Spotify or Apple Music as the album Winterpills Demos Vol. 1: Orchard St. Blues."
A few weeks ago I sat down and listened to all the Winterpills demos and what a treat they were. It’s like having alternative versions of each album, rather than here’s the albums and here’s the demos. I assume they were far more straight forward to prepare or am I wrong?
"A few years back, a fan asked if I had demos for the Winterpills albums and I told him, I sure did. He is a devoted fan, so for his birthday I collected them all together, burned some CDs and sent them off to him. Then last year, I ran across those collections, re-listened and thought, hey, these are good by themselves! It was also around the time I had read some articles about how many younger artists, some with only a couple albums out, are releasing companion collections of demos and outtakes from those albums.
I come from the generation of artists who generally sit on their work, release only trickles of extras, and wait and wait. I liked the gumption of just releasing tons of material all at once. Also, honestly, I wanted to saturate the streaming services with my music. Putting it all together was pretty easy, and I did no remixing or mastering at all, so volume levels jump around and therein lies some charm. I have a lot more that I am planning on dropping at some point soon. I'm also going to be releasing weird old singles.
Do you want to hear about my new solo album? Coming out this fall, Sept 6, 2019. Bare-bones acoustic, recorded with Justin Pizzoferrato, who did Love Songs (and also, interestingly, just did a new Sebadoh album).
Last April, right around the time my wife got pregnant with our son, I went into the studio with about twenty songs and three acoustic guitars. I knew exactly how I was going to record the album. I had rehearsed not only the songs at home, but the method of recording them, how the tracks would be laid down and organized. It took four days and we had an album, whittled down the 14 songs.
We studied how Nick Drake recorded Pink Moon, emulated some mics and mic placements, setups, what guitars he used. Also listened to Gene Clark solo stuff. John Renbourn. I wanted the album to sound like it could fit nicely on such a playlist. I had been writing and assembling songs for a couple years for this (since Love Songs).
I deliberately wanted something more drone-y and modal, more open tunings, less obvious hooks, something more fleshy, minimal and intimate. Wanted to hide less behind a band, get my vocals way out in front, single-tracked, clear. Justin Pizzoferrato is so great to work with, we have a real flow and he ends up influencing me in all kinds of ways too. I have to say, he got an incredible sound with this album. We stuck with a simple palette of the same mics on everything, sitting in a big concrete space with natural reverb and (mostly) avoiding all the usual tricks of modern ProTools recording techniques that can send you down rabbit holes with endless tweaks and revisions.
I also knew that I was about to become a father again and I likely wouldn't have time to record an album during that stretch, so I was getting a head start. The album is called Bone Almanac and it’s out September. 6th, 2019, a year and half since I recorded it, which was the plan."
You can listen to and buy Philip's solo collection here. Winterpills albums are here. The Maggies albums here. You can find out more about the great man here.
Mick's wonderful 2008 Interview with Philip can be read here.