Looking back its astonishing to realise just how many classic albums were released in the Nineties, a veritable mountain of brilliant records like a deluge of creative wonder that just kept coming and coming and coming…truly a great time to be into music. It was a golden age of abundant seemingly unending riches to be adored and cherished.
In the middle of that memorable decade came the modest release of Sleep In A Wigwam by one man band Rich Arithmetic a beautifully crafted affair, part XTC, part Beatles, but mostly the unmistakable talent of the man behind the curtain, Seattle based Rich Horton. Great guitar pop songs, masterfully delivered and dressed up in a delightful daisy bright psychedelic production, the release had it all. It was an album that even with everything else going on at the time became one you would return to again and again and sigh with delight as it charmed and beguiled you once more.
Then we waited in vain for the next album that sadly never came. Finally, now, Rich Arithmetic returns with the release of the very excellent Shiftingears on Kool Kat and the promise of more to come. Let us sit down with the excellent fellow and see how it all adds up.
What are your earliest memories of first getting into music?
"I was immersed in music from Day One. My father was an accomplished classical and Southern Gospel pianist and he had an eclectic record collection that I was exposed to as a child. Additionally, as a Methodist minister, my father made sure that my siblings and I all took piano lessons and sang in the youth choirs of the church he pastored."
Which music artists first made you sit up and take notice?
"Far too many to mention, but it always comes back to The Beatles. I’ve always likened the first time I saw them on TV as a religious experience and they influenced me more than all the other bands and genres that I have loved over the years. Of course, there are also a lot of “second place” artists & genres that have caught my devotions and obsessions over the years since then – The Beach Boys, The Byrds, The Zombies, psychedelia & flower pop, sunshine pop, folk rock. Even jazz-influenced bands like early Blood Sweat & Tears and Chicago because of their attempts to attach the adventurousness of jazz aesthetics to pop and rock music.
Unfortunately, Chicago became a lame ballad band and BS&T never could keep a set line-up and they began lacking the top-tier material that had marked their first three albums. I was into masterful pop tunesmiths like Billy Joel, James Taylor, and Brian Protheroe. Country rockers like Poco. And for a long period in the Seventies I immersed myself in Prog because of the ways Genesis and Yes as well as ELP expanded the pop & rock vocabulary.
Yes and Genesis were my two go-to progressive bands. Foxtrot is my favourite ever prog album, though Selling England is close. For me, the band lost its vision when Peter Gabriel left, I also totally dug The Yes Album, Fragile, and Close to the Edge – all three of which I continue to play with regularity. But with Relayer, despite some excellent sections and Topographic Oceans, which I considered musical masturbation, I began falling off the boat.
The bands I played in reflected an amalgamation of those influences. I was also totally obsessed with Steely Dan, too. They incorporated jazz better into their sound & identity than most of the fusion bands. It was so smooth how they sucked you into it. In the late Seventies my brother and I had a band called "Harbor" that was a largely failed attempt to be a "Yes-meets-Steely Dan" kind of hybrid prog/jazz-pop group.
Unfortunately, we didn't have the chops to pull it off -- at that point, our song ideas outstripped our abilities to play them. Though we had some loyal fans, I think the majority of folks who came out to hear us were puzzled by what we were trying to do. In retrospect, I don't blame them.
But it was in the late Seventies & early Eighties that I found a fork in the road that changed my course as a musician when I stumbled on the new wave and power pop bands that returned my attention to what I’d loved about Sixties pop in the first place. Driving guitar-based bands with pop hooks and compelling harmonies, The dB’s, Squeeze, XTC, The Records, Joe Jackson, Split Enz, Nick Lowe, REM and on and on.
Back in the late '70s I remember reading an article that said XTC was the future of progressive rock. I hadn't heard them, yet, so you can imagine my surprise when I finally did! I love XTC. But prog? And Supertramp and 10cc? Not quite prog. More like Art Pop, maybe. All of these bands and artists are part of the Pop Stew that is the music of Rich Arithmetic."
When did you start playing an instrument?
"I started taking piano lessons on my eighth birthday, which in addition to teaching me notes and scales, also provided me with a vital foundation in music theory that allowed me to teach myself how to play guitar when I became a teenager."
When did you start writing songs and why?
"Actually, that’s kind of a funny story. When my father, the Methodist minister, bought me my first guitar, he made me promise that I wouldn’t play rock ‘n’ roll on it. But I side-stepped him by experimenting with writing my own primitive tunes, which I figured could not be strictly classified as “rock ‘n’ roll” since I’d composed them on an acoustic guitar.
I didn’t move to Seattle until I was in my early thirties. Before that, I grew up in the small college town of McPherson, Kansas, which, though small, had exciting music programs in the public schools and churches and, seemingly, a garage band on every corner. Several people from that small town went on to careers in pop, rock, and jazz circles. The older brother of a friend played in The Four Seasons, the million-selling popular band of the ‘60s and’70s. A guy on my Little League baseball team played with jazzman Stan Kent and the hit-making jazz-rock band, Chase in the ‘70s. A lot of my high school classmates played in nationally known touring bands and groups.
Our town may have been small, but it provided an abundantly rich atmosphere for kids who wanted to pursue music. In college I majored in Journalism, but except for a short stint working for an underground newspaper, The Hollywood Free Paper, I never had any career in "journalism," per se, though over the years I did write occasionally for blogs and music papers/zines here in the States."
When did you first meet Lance Morgan?
"I’m glad you asked about Lance. Some of your readers may know Lance Morgan as the nineties indie-pop recording artist “Monsters Under the Bed.” I met Lance in 1986, about a year after I’d moved to Seattle and he answered an ad I’d run in a local paper looking for someone to start a band with. Alone among the several people who answered my ad, Lance immediately and instinctively added a harmony voice to any song I threw at him; it was if we’d been singing together for years.
Within weeks we started the band HI-FI (later known as Point No Point) and played all around Seattle for the next two to three years. We recorded one full-length album called “Point No Point” before we broke up in 1989. After that Lance and I each began pursuing our own solo recording projects – me as Rich Arithmetic and Lance as Monsters Under the Bed, with each of us playing & singing on recordings by the other. To this day Lance & I continue to play an occasional unplugged gig as a duo we call The Arithmetic Monsters."
Tell us about Optional Art, the label you ran.
"In the early eighties my brother and I bought one of the early PortaStudio 4-track cassette recorders and started recording our own songs. When we began giving them to our friends and prospective booking agents and trading them with other home-tapers, we slapped the name “Optional Art” on our tapes. The idea being that “Optional Art” was meant to imply that we were trying optimize the accessibility potential of our songs while also trying to realize the option of making it as creative and artistic as we could.
For the first several of those Cassette Culture years, that was all Optional Art was. But in 1985, after I went into a “real” studio to record my first solo venture, “Hi-Fi Limbo” by Richard H, I decided to make Optional Art an actual record label. Following that first formal Optional Art release, virtually all of our releases were recorded in “real” studios, but were released on cassette simply because we could not afford to press vinyl in those pre-CD years."
And then came your debut album “Sleep in a Wigwam”
"As I mentioned, with few exceptions in the early days of Optional Art, almost everything we released was in the form of a cassette, including the first version of “Neighborhood Of Reality” in 1993. This began changing a bit, however, between 1991-1993, when we also released three vinyl 45’s, including my first single as Rich Arithmetic, a single by Monsters Under the Bed and a single by the band Edgar Schwartz – all of whom subsequently had full-length CD’s.
My idea at that point was that in addition to my own recordings, I wanted to use Optional Art to promote other DIY/indie artists whose music I believed in, regardless of how it fit with existing genres. For example, although I arranged a lot of the material on Lance Morgan’s Monsters Under the Bed album “Neighborhood Of Reality” to appeal to the indie-pop crowd, I recognized that, at bottom, he was primarily a singer-songwriter with a strong folk bent, who also had a few hooks in his songs. Edgar Schwartz was more an avant-garde type of pop act. Their songs were very quirky, but were overlaid with lush harmonies. I wanted to use Optional Art to promote that kind of creativity.
Although I had an on-and-off acoustic trio during the late Nineties and up until about 2013, my last true band Point No Point broke up on the cusp of 1990, which was when I decided to quit playing live and become a studio only solo artist. So the early Nineties was all about teaching myself to be a one-man band, which culminated in the recordings that became my album "Sleep In A Wigwam." Despite my intentions of being a one-man band, with only two or three exceptions, the songs on "Sleep In a Wigwam" had been written for my band, but we'd learned only a few of them before we broke up.
Unlike some artists, I almost never start recording until I have a song pretty much in place, both music and lyrics. As for how I record, the first two things I always lay down are a click track to set the song's tempo and then a guide instrument (either an acoustic guitar or a piano) which may or may not be included in the final mix, but can keep the basic rhythm & tempo and steer the arrangement of the song.
Once the click track & guide tracks are solid, I may record a guide lead vocal but just as often I'll play bass in order to provide a "basement" for the house of the song I'm building. After that, I have no set order to what instruments or vocals I next play/record. It all depends on the nature of the song and which musical ideas I intend to emphasize most. But one thing that is invariably true is that I leave recording the drums until the very end so that I can ensure the fills and riffs don't get in the way of the other aspects of the song.
Generally speaking, the vocal harmonies don't get recorded until near the end of the recording process. I like having a large backlog of songs to choose from when recording, so I can choose not only the best ones, but also the ones that seem to fit with a particular recording project. For example, back in the mid-'90s, my label Optional Art was going to release a Christmas album, which allowed me to dig into my box of songs and find several that fit the project. It was actually quite rewarding because I'd particularly wanted to record them but never had had a place for them to fit until then.
"In 1994-95 when we released “Sleep In A Wigwam,” my first full-length album as Rich Arithmetic, it came out on both CD and cassette, which were identical, in terms of material. Although Monster Under the Bed’s “Neighborhood Of Reality” album initially was released in 1993, when we decided to release it as a CD four years later in 1997, we decided to delete several songs from the initial cassette release and I had Lance record a handful of new songs for the CD release.
"It’s funny. I’ve never considered myself as Power Pop artist, per se, but I seemingly became a viable presence in the indie-pop and power pop community in the Nineties with the success of “Sleep In a Wigwam. “Hartbeat” Magazine listed it as one of its Top 100 Best Power Pop albums of all time. Audities Magazine, which was the power pop “bible” of the Nineties included it as Number 7 on its “Best Power Pop Albums of 1995” list and many other fanzines and indie-pop media embraced it with enthusiasm.
Even though Rich Arithmetic and Optional Art did not fit neatly within many more purist power pop definitions, those good receptions helped give Optional Art a certainly kind of credibility when we released the second version of “Neighborhood Of Reality” by Monsters Under the Bed, “Milk & Cookies” by Edgar Schwartz” and “Cool Yule” and “Burnt Marshmallows and Teeny Bikinis,” both of which were holiday-themed compilation CD’s with a variety of indie-pop and power pop artists."
And then you kinda disappeared…
"In the late Nineties I actually started recording material for what was intended to be another album, but then life happened – both good & great things, as well as some very hard and stressful things. My children were still very young and needed a father who wasn’t gallivanting around trying to be a pop star,and I loved being present for them.
But then the health of my elderly parents took a downturn, and that required my intense concentration for the better part of seven years. In the midst of that, I developed cancer (I’m cancer-free now) and also got a divorce. Certainly, I continued to write music, but I just didn’t have the emotional bandwidth or time to run a record label or record new music and I just closed the doors for the next twenty years."
Now tell us all about the excellent new album. What brought about your welcome return.
"I’m glad to report that about four years ago I was able to recover my energy and enthusiasm for recording again. As you know, the album is called Shiftingears, which is intentionally ambiguous as it can be read as either Shiftin Gears or Shifting Ears – the point being is that it represents a shift from what I did with “Sleep In A Wigwam.”
For myself, it represents a shifting of gears in that my palette has broadened, but it may require a shifting of ears for fans to go along for the ride. I try to write the kinds of songs I'd want to listen to (although my listening interests go far beyond the kinds of things I write, admittedly).
Whereas the songs on “Wigwam” were intended to sound like something a four-piece guitar-centric band might have sang and played live, the new album is much more about who I am as a solo musician. I am a musician who is interested in the varieties of directions a pop song can take and several songs feature a guest lead singer or somewhat different instrumentation. There’s more variety in the song writing style, as well.
For instance, “One Thing,” a song I co-wrote with my producer Jim Nicholson, features the vocals of the fabulous Maura Kennedy of the award-winning coffee-house pop group The Kennedys singing lead with my former colleague from my little-known acoustic group Cool Blue, Colleen Anderson on harmonies. That song starts out in somewhat moody fashion, but ultimately transforms itself into a bouncy affair with interweaving sunshine pop harmonies. The song “Always” features a groove-oriented verse and a longish seventies styled guitar solo but keeps a catchy chorus and a Beach Boys-inspired bridge central to its pop intents.
There’s also a song called “A-Girl’s Reply,” which is ostensibly the musings of the Ipanema Girl and punctuated by jazz chords, a surf guitar solo, a marimba and sultry voice of Diane Leigh, who is a wonderful R&B singer in my town. Another tune, “Make Me Over,” tries to be a pop song disguised in bar band clothes, featuring Charlie Malizsweski, the harpist & lead singer for the blues-rockers, The Legendary Chucklenuts.
There’s an Andy Partridge-meets-Paul McCartney piano-based tune, “He’s a Good Man,” which my pal Chris Zajkowski (aka Squires Of The Subterrain), co-wrote with me. I even attempt Baroque Pop on “Before the First Slice,” which was inspired by four chords Ray Carmen from the Librarians With Hickeys “gave” to me and that I supplemented with voice, piano, and a 4-piece string arrangement.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I haven’t abandoned my guitar-pop style altogether. For example, “In Our Time” a song I wrote as an ode to the Sixties cult-pop group The E-Type, which features a dueling Strat & 12-string theme that recurs throughout the song and is interspersed with intricate vocal harmonies that interweave and answer each other. On that note: I even cover an old E-Types single, “She Moves Me,” which is a garage rock tune featuring a glistening guitar, an insistent riff and great three-part harmonies.
All in all, it will be evident that The Beatles and XTC are big influences on my music, but my influences also extend beyond them and I think the way I’ve combined the variety of those influences in my music comes off as unique. Some of my music is Power Pop, to be sure, but for the most part, as one of my friends says: “It’s Rich Arithmetic music.”
Fortunately, I have been writing songs ever since I was thirteen, which covers a lot of eras and a lot of genres in pop music. So I do not feel constricted by needing to record only the latest handful of songs I’ve written. I also go back and retrieve songs that I have written in the past, songs that I feel shouldn’t be left behind just because I wrote them ten, twenty, thirty years ago or so. For example, the most recent song on Shiftingears was written less than a year ago and the oldest was written in 1979 (and I won’t tell you which ones!)."
Are you slow or prolific?
"Oh, man. I am such a slow writer. Once I dedicate myself to an idea, it undergoes revision after revision before I feel satisfied with it. Even then, I continue to tinker with the lyrics or a chord progression or something else."
The production is crucial and all important…its obvious you feel the same and what a beautiful listening pleasure your stuff is…full of superbly crafted sonic adventure…tell me about how you approach it
"Thank you for saying that. These days, I record everything in my home studio, but I do not consider myself a technical wizard at all. For that, I have to give credit to my co-producer, Jim Nicholson. After I record all my tracks here in Bellingham, Washington, I send them to Jim’s studio in Fayetteville, Arkansas which is almost 2200 miles from me. He gets under the hood and adjusts the spark plugs and jiggles the valves and often adds some cool effects and sounds.
He is the most awesome collaborator I could ever have and we have the greatest conversations while he is mixing and mastering my recordings. We're in constant contact regarding the various mixes. It's a delightfully collaborative process, because Jim often comes up with sonic ideas that I haven't thought of, which benefit the song."
What does psychedelia mean to you?
"I’m quite surprised that you asked! “Psychedelia” informs almost all of my production decisions! Even though I would not consider myself a psychedelic artist in any real sense. I continue to be influenced by how records were produced in the mid-late Sixties – the echoes on the voices, the effects on the guitars, the baroque approach to arrangements, etc. Without question, it was a period when record production grew in leaps and bounds and I continue to embrace it."
How’s the feedback to the album been so far?
"Initial reviews have been positive for the most part, but some reviewers have mentioned that it’s not a “Power Pop album,” and one mentioned that I was an “oddity” even back in the days when my stuff appeared in the catalog of Not Lame Records, which was the “home” of Power Pop in the Nineties.
I don’t particularly quibble with that response to my work. It’s true – I am not a Power Pop artist if that means that every song features crunchy guitars and anthemic choruses. As I continue to mention, I’ve always been inspired by The Beatles and XTC, artists who never felt constrained by any particular genre boundaries, even while remaining eminently tuneful. That’s kind of how I view my M.O., as well.
I find the endless debates on some of the indie Facebook pages about what is and what is not "power pop" a bit wearisome. Frankly, I much prefer the days when tastes seemed broader, If you liked something, that was reason enough to dig it and not have to justify whether it "fit" into some preconceived genre. Although, of course, I do remember being embarrassed when I was in my "rock snob" era about enjoying The Monkees. Ha.
Frankly, I don't think the fracturing and sub-fracturing of rock & pop into so many sub-genres has been very healthy, in terms of giving fair shrift to all the great stuff that's out there! I think the last time I felt labels were meaningful was when "new wave"and "alternative" were used almost exclusively to designate almost anything that was different from the mainstream commercial music of the time.
Thus, Elvis Costello, The Clash, The Cars, REM, The Ramones, Squeeze, The dB's, Oingo Boingo, The Selectors, even Dire Straits and The Police, etc. -- it was ALL New Wave or Alternative because it was a"new way" of expressing pop and rock music of the Seventies. And I liked almost all of it.
As a musician I have always struggled with labels. In the early eighties, a prospective manager told my brother and me: "You guys are far too alternative for the pop crowd, but far too pop for the alternative crowd and the rock audience will hate you either way."
And so it has been ever since.
"At long last, I have finished cleaning up my studio a bit. It got rather disheveled during the Christmas season when I was also using it as a gift-wrapping area and all my notebooks & lyrics pages got scattered across the floor along with endless loops of cords and mic stands.
For me, this is good news because I'm hoping to start recording a new song tomorrow, which is intended to be a bit of a collaboration with Marvin Hunt, an old-time friend from the Kansas City area whose bands over the years have been awesome. He was the producer of my very first solo record "Hi-Fi Limbo" by Richard H back in '85. The nature of our collaboration is that each of us would write a Nick Lowe-styled song and that we'd take turns adding things to each other's recording of their own song.
Trouble is, Nick Lowe has written so many styles of music that almost anything could qualify as a Nick Lowe-styled song, right? The song I've just finished writing for our collaboration is called "You Are Always Right" and I've had the chorus for the song floating around since the late 1980's, but the impetus for this project led me to finally finish writing it.
A few weeks ago I woke up one morning with a song running through my head that I'd written way back in 1978, "Reignburst," a song that was one of my attempts to write a Yes-meets-Steely Dan thing. It's funny. I hadn't heard that song, or even thought about it, in twenty years or more. But I went and dug out a live recording of my old band Harbor playing the song in 1980 and I was surprised that we'd played it as well as we had.
It certainly had no Yes or Steely Dan influences in it, but it did include some jazz chords and some prog influences while being neither genre particularly; however, I shocked myself because it was a fairly decent song, after all. I've been considering maybe brushing it off and recording it … all eight minutes of it! Ha.
As to the future, I’m not quite sure. I’ve got a whole lot of songs on the table right now and trying to decide which ones should be given priority, in terms of which to record next. But continuing to write music and record it is something I plan to continue to do."
Sleep In A Wigwam here.