Don Was no longer requires an introduction in these pages. One of Detroit’s most successful musical expatriates of the last two decades, the producer and Was (Not Was) co-leader returns this week to front an All-Star Detroit tribute at the Concert of Colors.
METRO TIMES: So tell us about the origins of the Don Was Detroit Super Session Show. We heard today that it looks like David [Was] isn't going to make the show now.
DON WAS: Well, we'll know when the plane leaves L.A. (laughs) He may; he may not – I don't know for sure. But the whole thing really came about in a haphazard way. The Arab American Museum saw the Wasmopolitan site I’d done online, where we recorded and videotaped 11 Detroit artists. And they said "How about a live version of that?" I thought that's a pretty cool idea, to do it as a revue, where everyone gets onstage and does one song. So, it's basically an outgrowth of Wasmopolitan. But we've added the Detroit Cobras and the Dirt Bombs. Mitch Ryder, John Sinclair and Wayne Kramer. Lola Morales. But it’s most of the same people from the website —Black Bottom Collective, Black Merda, Sisters Lucas, the Go, the Ramrods, the Muldoons. Luis Resto. Hopefully David. (laughs).
MT: So, rather than a jam session, it’s going to be individual bands doing one song apiece?
WAS: Yeah — a 75-minute minute revue. Old school, like Dick Clark. I've actually never seen anything quite like it before. Some people won't have their own band, so there's a house band that'll be me and Luis, Randy Jacobs and Terry Thunder from the Sun Messengers.
MT: Are you worried at all about time? That’s quite a few bands to feature in a 75-minute space.
WAS: Yeah, I don't know how it'll work. (laughs) But we’ll keep it simple. There'll be four amplifiers onstage, one drum set, a bass amp, some keyboards. We don't have to keep changing equipment. You just walk up there and plug in. So I don't see why it can't work.
MT: You did the Concert of Colors a few years ago. You seem to have a love for this fest. Any particular reason?
WAS: Well, you know, this woman from the Detroit Jewish News called me the other day, and she said, "When you were growing up in Oak Park, did you ever think that you'd be on a show that was put on by the Arab Americans?" And I thought about it. I said, "Man, I really never thought of it that." It would be an odd thing for me to think they were like my enemy or anything. The only enemy is the Machiavellian disciple who tries to keep people down by keeping them divided by playing to their fears. And I love any event that makes that point clear, and there’s no better way to make it than with music. Because when you get past the ephemera, all people are the same. Everybody wants the same thing. They don't want their kids murdered; they want to eat and, you know, enjoy the pleasures of life. But we're all manipulated by fear to turn on each other and not look to the real enemy. So, I think it's a beautiful event. And Detroit’s such a great place for it, too. I still credit the booming auto industry right after the war, but Detroit has such a great cross-section of ethnicities and that's why the music there's so great. I mean, it’s always been a world music thing in that city. So I look at our revue as being the indigenous music of the tribe of Detroit. It goes along with the Sudanese revue, which I think is amazing. That has people from both sides of the conflict there playing music together. It’s basically saying, "Fuck all the government!" I think the Detroit combination is similar because it's such an odd, eclectic blend of people, yet it's all got something in common.
The [Wasmopolitan] thing really kinda blew my mind. It was a very emotional thing to do, which I didn't expect. It was intense, man, because it reminded me of what a strong and unique vibe Detroit has got. Right after that, I went to Nashville and did kinda the same thing. And they were good songwriters, too — people like Guy Clark and Buddy Miller and Lori McKenna. But it actually felt bland in comparison to what was coming out of Detroit. When you go through the history, everybody — from the MC5 to the Sisters Lucas — man, I don't know anybody like either of them. I got letters from all over the world from people who were wigged out by the Sisters Lucas, 'cause you can't compare it to anything you've ever heard before. And there's so much stuff that comes outta Detroit that's like that.
MT: So you think the Detroit scene remains as strong as it's ever been in the past?
WAS: Um, musically, it is. From a business standpoint, it's gone now. But there are cycles when, over the years, record companies descend on Detroit, pick everybody up and use 'em. (laughs) So, there have been periods when Detroit musicians got more recognition on a global basis than right now. But, I think it's certainly as strong as ever and maybe stronger. Maybe hard times contribute to that. I mean, it makes for better music everywhere. So what’s going on right now, it's not something you want to see happen to the city, but... I still think it's an extraordinary place. I was talking to [John] Sinclair about it. I asked, "What is it?" He gave me a kind of poetic answer. He said, "It's the cats, man. It's the people." And those people come from a wide cross-section of cultures. Again, the historical period when factories were booming and people were coming from all over to work there was the factor but it didn't ever get homogenized into a single culture.
MT: Have you been following what's going on with the mayor and all the city scandal?
WAS: Well, I'm not well versed in all the issues. I do think that especially when you've had a guy like Alberto Gonzales running the Justice Department that it's a very frightening prospect to have prosecutors essentially overturning election results. And for that reason alone, I don't wanna see this guy forced out over text messages to his girlfriend. That's horseshit. But it’s a tactic that keeps working.
MT: Well, the only sad part is that when you and I talked about Detroit versus L.A. a few years ago, we were under the impression that racism seemed a lot less rampant or at least less institutionalized in Detroit, again due to the car factories and everyone working side by side. But with this whole scandal, people are talking and thinking about racism again in this city. Even the mayor uses it as a playing card.
WAS: Yeah, it's very sad. It feels like the whole regime right now has been orchestrated right out of Machiavelli, though. It's right out of The Prince and Art of War, you know? The idea is to keep people at each other's throats and preoccupied while the ones in power rape the place. And that’s been there throughout the history of man. I don't know if Kwame's a good man or not. But I kinda dug his style and always thought he had good intentions for the city. So, I don't know that you should overturn an election with this shit.
MT: A few years ago, there was some talk about you doing a Detroit radio station and even a label. Is that still on the back burner? Are you still thinking about that or has Wasmopolitan kinda taken the place of that?
WAS: Well, you know, I still wanna do something. But as I looked into radio, I started finding out that maybe I was being a little harsh on Detroit radio overall. People started pointing out that local music was being heard. I got some letters from WDET. So, maybe radio wasn't as bad as I thought. In terms of record companies ... well, you might as well work in a blacksmith's shop as at a record company these days. When we did the Wasmopolitan thing last fall, it was an attempt to start a new kind of record company, which made sense in this period of time. I'm not big on raising people's hopes and then not being able to sell records. I've had it happen to me before (laughs), many times. You enter a contract with someone. You say, "We're gonna make this music and you're gonna sell it." But if the label can't actually follow through and get the exposure, it’s really bad.
So it's a terrible time to start a record company But I think the Wasmopolitan model could still work. It's always current. Lincoln-Mercury stepped up and sponsored the Detroit thing. No one made money from it — but it covered the cost of doing it. And perhaps some kind of sponsorship thing like that would help. But to just start a record company and press up some CDs, I don't think that's doing anyone any favors ... But I do still believe in the principle that if you leave the tribe and go west looking for gold and better farmland, and once you find it, if you stay there, you still gotta go back and help the place that gave you your start. It’s kinda unsavory to go to L.A., make a buncha bread, and then not come back and try to help everyone else who's still there. But right now, all I can really do are little gestures like this show and the Wasmopolitan thing.
I did put some time in, though, where I went around and looked at venues. There aren’t a lot of venues there. But there is a music scene. The question is how to you expose it to the world? And it’s not just Detroit. It's a music business-wide question. How do you expose music these days? No one seems to have an answer. And no one seems to be doing a particularly good job of it right now But I think that'll change. These are very transitional years and we’re still looking for a new method of, of getting the word out to people.
MT: Is your basic production technique still the same after all these years?
WAS: It's still all about good songs and good singers. Even if you're talking about John Coltrane. It's like, he's a singer. He just sings through the saxophone. All the other stuff — the technique — you can get lost in it. I'll tell you what I did this week. I produced a record for a guy named Todd Snider who's a really good ... I guess for lack of a better term, you can call him an alternative country artist. We made an album in two days. Recorded and mixed the whole thing. He already knew his songs going in. He’d already tested the material in front of audiences, so we chose his 10 best new songs. I played bass, Jim Keltner played drums, another guy played steel, and Todd played piano and guitar. And we made an album — cut 10 songs and mixed ’em — in two days. It’s a little ragged, but not bad ragged. It’s charming ragged! It just adds character. And when you make a record like that, you only focus on what's important. If you have a singer who goes into the room, and delivers the performance and you say, "That's the take," it's based on a totally different criteria than if you're over-dubbing things and the singer adds a vocal later. And the most important thing is always the vocal. So the key for a take is the one where the guy sings it well. If he sang well, then that must mean that everybody played the right things because it resulted in a really good vocal. That's how you choose the take. Not because the drummer did something cool on the high hat. You chose the take because the song is being delivered with integrity. It’s just so easy to forget that shit. It's the most basic stuff, but God knows I've forgotten it, too. Way too many times. But the things that I've been a part of that that have been successful were all done that way — Bonnie [Raitt]’s Nick of Time and [the B-52’s] "Love Shack." Those were live vocals.
I mean, you couldn’t go back and overdub some of those lines on "Love Shack"! (laughs) That kinda stuff just happens, man. That was like some freaky thing that occurs in that moment. When Cindy [Wilson] delivered that line about "Tin roof rusted," she was so worked up in the song that she choked up, started crying. And the line makes no fuckin' sense! But yet it's such a powerful line. Somehow, her emotional instinct just kicked in. She put everything she was feeling into that line. And you can't overdub that. It was because "Love Shack" was driven by the groove of the band during the first take. That's just an example of things where it's worked. But there have been plenty of times where we over-dubbed things to death and ruined a lot of good music. I think all the great producers ultimately understood that — Jerry Wexler, Leonard Chess, Phil Spector.
MT: Other than the Todd Snider project, do you have anything else major coming up?
WAS: Well, just before that, I finished an album with Jill Sobule. She did the original "I Kissed A Girl," but she shouldn’t be judged on that. She’s a really deep songwriter — both funny and profound. She has a devoted fan base, and she had a "telethon" on her website where fans could contribute as little as $18, for which they got a T-shirt and an early download of the album. For $10,000 — which some people actually bought — you got the hyper-platinum package which allowed you to come and sing background vocals on the album. And she raised $85,000 in about three weeks. Then we made that album — recorded and mixed it — in less than two weeks. Same basic principle. And, you know, there's just, something about it – that immediacy.
I really think you can spend about three days doing good stuff and then the next five weeks destroying the record. Just smoothing it out into oblivion. But I think it required the collapse of the music business because we made Todd’s album in two days because that's how much money Todd had to spend. And the same thing with Jill. But early on, that’s also how Leonard Chess thought. He didn't spend six weeks on a record. He cut four songs in an afternoon and he pulled two singles out of the four songs. That was because that made good business sense back then. And was only in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s that people got crazy, and self-indulgent. And I don't know that most of those heavily thought-out records stand the test of time. I don't know they'll bear the scrutiny that a Chuck Berry record can still sustain.
MT: Have you heard Brian Wilson's new project yet? That Lucky Old Sun. The one he just did with Van Dyke Parks?
WAS: Is it finished?
MT: Yeah, it's finished. It’s coming out in September. It’s premiering live in England in August, as a matter of fact..
WAS: He asked me to play bass on the British shows. I couldn’t do it, though, 'cause I was doing these other records. But I know he's doing great, so it would have really been something to do that. I haven't heard any of it, though. I'm sure it's great. You know he played with Was (Not Was) in February, right?.
MT: That's right. I forgot all about that. That's one of the reasons I was unhappy not to still be in L.A. When I heard about that show, with him on one side of the stage and Kris Kristofferson on the other side, that must have been incredible! We blogged about that.
WAS: Yeah. I saw that. But you’re right. It was something else, man. It was really something else. And what was great about Brian is that he was in such good shape. He was happy. He was really on that night. And he hung out all day and was jokin’ around with the band and even the crew guys — the guys who carried in the sound system, the rental guys (laughs). He was so present and so happy. And charming onstage, too. It really was an eye-opener. So, I’ve got high hopes for this record. I think he's got confidence and command again.
MT: You've produced so many of your heroes over the years — Iggy, Dylan, Brian. I remember you telling me at one point that when we went to see the Stones Pontiac Silverdome in ’81, you never imagined in a million years that you'd be producing them a few years later. But is there anybody on your wish list that you’d still like to produce?
WAS: There are new people all the time. Neko Case, for example. I've never met her but I'd love to make a record with her. And Pieta Brown. Is that her name? Greg Brown's daughter?
MT: Not familiar with her.
WAS: She's like kind of a country singer. She's great, man. I just heard some of her stuff. It's a good story, too. Her father's a folk singer — a pretty well-known guy named Greg Brown. He’s married to Iris Dement. He’s a guy who's probably a little older than me but not by much — late 50’s, I’d guess. And his longtime guitar player married his daughter, Pieta. It's a little like Honeysuckle Rose. (laughs) She’s like his beautiful 20-year-old girl, so I guess it's a victory for the 50-year-olds everywhere. (laughs). So there are people like that all the time. Yeah, you know, it would be great to work with Bruce Springsteen. I know him. I've played with him and I know him socially. I think he's always been the real deal. But I don't know that he needs any help from me. He’s always made good records.
MT: Well, maybe that’ll come true. I remember talking to you once and you saying that you wanted to produce Paul Westerberg. And, lo and behold, a couple of years later, you did produce him.
WAS: Well, sometimes, you can take action. For example, I was driving around L.A. about two or three months ago, and I was listening to one of the NPR stations. I heard this jazz singer. I pulled over and waited and it was a guy named Kurt Elling. You heard this guy?
MT: No, I haven’t.
WAS: Well, he's a great singer out of Chicago. So, when Was (Not Was) got to Chicago — right after we played in Detroit, in fact — I just tracked him down and invited him to the show. He came down and then I went to see him play at a jazz club in L.A. last weekend. So now we're going to end up doing an album together in October. So you just never know. You can make these things happen. (laughs)
MT: You may want to save this for your memoirs. But do you have any opinion on what your best production experience was and what your worst production experience was?
WAS: I never had a worst. I mean, I've got along with everybody I've worked with. I've never disliked anybody. I've never been disappointed in anybody. But some people got a little more...um, maybe they could have taken some OCD medication... (laughs) It would have been better if they had. Some people just get lost in that whole thing and there's nothing you can do about it. It's a medical issue. But they're still great artists anyway. So I've been very lucky with that. There have been a couple of records... well, all I can really answer is by looking at what stuff I produced that I still listen to. Because, for the most part, you don't really play these records very often. And there's a Willie Nelson album called Across the Borderline.
MT: Oh, sure. Some critics think that's one of Willie’s greatest albums.
WAS: You know something? I love that thing. There was something about him and, where he was at the time we recorded it. He was about the age I am now, I think. Maybe just a little bit older. But something happens to you when you hit your mid-50’s, you know? And it's a good thing. I'm 55 right now. It's the best age ever. It’s before you really start falling apart. You’re healthy and you've still got plenty of vitality. And you've been learning from your mistakes all along. So you should be a pretty good place. And Willie was in that place then. He’d just come out of all that IRS stuff and he came out stronger and even more expressive. It's a beautiful record, I think. I like that one a lot.
MT: Yeah. I remember when you guys performed that live at the Roxy in L.A.
WAS: Oh, right. Yeah, of course. I forgot about that. That was something else, wasn't it?
MT: It was incredible.
WAS: Didn’t David Crosby and Lyle Lovett both sit in?
MT: Yeah, they sure did.
WAS: Wow. I really forgot all about that.
MT: I hope you haven’t forgotten about the Was (Not Was) record release show you guys did at that theatre downtown L.A. The one where you were joined by Iggy and Elton John and ...
WAS: Oh, the Mayan Theater, yeah!
MT: My brother, to this day, still says that's the best rock ‘n' roll party he's ever been to in his life. It was just incredible.
WAS: Yeah, it was pretty wild. You know, when I think about some of the stuff that's happened to me, I can't ... it still feels like a dream. I really can't believe that it actually happened.
The Don Was Detroit Super Session takes place Sunday, July 26, at 7:15 p.m. on the Chrysler Main Stage.
Thanks to editorial intern Cherri Buijk for her assistance.Bill Holdship is music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]