Interview with Robert Hunter and Greg Anton, August 25, 1997
Do Songs = Instrumentals + Lyrics?
- I think the most obvious question I could ask is, "How different is
it to have so many more songs, with lyrics? The audience seems to believe
that a song and an instrumental are really different beasts, but when I
listen to a tune like Catalina, I think that if you, Robert, hadn't come
along and put words to it, it would have fit well with a lot of instrumentals
I've heard Zero play in the past.
- They did it as an instrumental before I put words to it.
- Is that right? OK, so I'm not totally off base here. But it must change
something, the dynamic of the song. There's at least another musical voice,
in this case literally - Judge's voice - you have to accommodate, right?
- It's been a big difference. It's put some structure to the thing: sooner
or later you're going to get to a chorus and everybody knows it, everybody
in the audience and everybody in the band. I remember when we first started
putting these lyrics in. I was really blown away about how integrated it
felt. It just felt really natural. We'd be going along, playing, and then
here would come a verse or a chorus, and it seemed like the words made
sense with what we'd been doing up till then, for all those years. It just
- That makes me also wonder, Robert, what it was like for you - I guess
it's the other side of the same question - walking into a band that already
had a musical train rolling down the tracks, jumping on like a hobo with
a sack of lyrics, and fitting in so well. Was there some trick involved
Was there a different muse that had to inspire those words?
- Let's just say there's probably a different muse that inspires each
and every song, if you want to use muse that way. I'm not trying
to copy myself. Whatever Zero was doing, I just wrote for that. Beyond
that I can't even tell you what I do. You know, if it sounds right and
it fits the characters who are doing it, then it's working and that's sort
- Have the songs so far usually come to you with a melody and a structure
before you put lyrics to them?
- Yeah, they did, pretty much.
- Yeah, I'll just give you some chord changes and...
- To me it's not the changes so much as having them played. Greg's real
good on the piano. He lays stuff down and I know what that beat is going
to sound like when it finally gets on stage, because he's the drummer.
He plays piano with a lot of drummer consciousness to it.
Or I'll get something
like Spoken For, which was completely arranged. I remember Steve's guitar
playing on that thing seemed to tell me what that song was about. That
was an unusual experience, a very high experience, writing Spoken For.
- I remember Hunter called me up and said "Come on over, man, I've got
a new invention." I said, "an invention?" and he said "Yeah! It's not really
a song and it's not prose and it's not poetry, so it's brand new. It's
an invention." And it is! That song is like nothing else that that
I've ever heard. I'm real proud to have put that on the record.
Instrumental + Lyrics = Song
- I'll give you an example from when we started that shows how Hunter
was sensitive to what was going on. We had played together, years before.
Then we kind of lost touch for a couple of years, and we ran into each
other at a party of a mutual friend. He asked me, "How's the band?" and
I was kind of lamenting about not being hugely successful, blah blah blah,
and he said, "Well you can go on being one of the most respected bands
around town by other musicians, or you could do some songs and maybe take
it to another level."
- We had just made a new record, Nothing Goes Here. I gave him
that record and said, "See if anything appeals to you." He took the outro
from Nancy Germany on that the record, and he wrote
Chance in a Million.
Now, I had just been sitting at this party drinking beer and going "oh
boy, it's so tough, the music business..." and he comes up with this song
that talks about a "chance in a million"!
- Does having lyrics give you a way to connect with an audience that maybe
can't follow music that's purely instrumental?
- I don't know.
- We'll see....
- We're not trying to do any kind of formula. We're just doing what we
feel like doing.
The Five-Minute Song Challenge Story
- Isn't a song on the new album,
Ermaline, also built off the outro of
- Hunter was in the studio with us where we were recording, and I said
"Stick around and check out this next track. We're trying to play
Home on the Range
with a whole different groove, and we need some help, maybe
with some phrasing, or more words or less words to make it fit." He said
"OK," so I put the track up.
- The track was up for about a minute when he said "The hell with this."
He said, "Turn off the vocals," and he grabbed a legal pad and a pencil
and started writing like crazy. The track played from front to back, five
minutes or something, and he stood up and said, "Give me a microphone."
Then he ran into the vocal booth and laid down the vocals himself for Ermaline,
a brand new song to those changes. Then you know we redid it a little bit
and Judge put the vocals down, and that's where Ermaline came from. It
was just written (snaps his fingers) right there on the spot. It was amazing.
I saw the lyrics written and you can hear the lyrics on the record, and
I don't think there was much more than one or two words crossed out on
the whole piece of paper of lyrics, it just came that fast. Nobody could
- So where'd it come from?
- Well, I boasted that I could do it and then I had to make good on the
boast. "You get one time through this track."
- It also seems that the name, Ermaline, seems to relate to other classic
rock and roll tunes, with names like Maybelline, Nadine, and Evangeline.
- Let's just say that when you're writing that fast, you don't have time
to consider what your influences are. (He and Greg laugh.)
To Road-Test or Not to Road-Test
- Do you have to make an effort not to lapse into Home on the Range when
you're playing Ermaline?
- I try to do different stuff on the drums. We all try to do different
stuff with it. We played it last week twice, once in Santa Cruz and once
in San Francisco. In fact, I've been planning to bring Hunter a live version
of Ermaline, because it's the reverse of what usually happens. We played
it for the first time in the studio and now we're trying to perform it,
and it's just really come into its own this past week, in my opinion.
- Most of the songs in the past have been road-tested before they get
on the album. Do you feel different this time, like you're coming out with
stuff that's more naked because it hasn't had time to grow hair on the
road? Does it feel different working from a studio version as your primal
version of the song?
- It was intentional. We worked out the stuff on Chance in a Million,
mostly me and Steve on my little home studio, and
Nicky Hopkins, and if
you go back and listen to those [demo] versions of Catalina and Home on
the Range and Chance in a Million, they're so fresh. It's this theory that
freshness works. We wanted to take something brand new, and play it for
the very first time in the studio, instead of getting it together on the
You see, when playing live, you're doing some kind of projection thing
for the audience. It's kind of a knee-jerk reaction. You do this, and everybody
goes, "Yahoo!" and so you do it more. That translates live but it doesn't
necessarily translate onto the tape that way.
One song on the new album,
8 Below Zero, we've never played that live.
- Yeah, I was going to ask. I've never heard that song played.
- We've never played it except one time in the studio. We were talking
about it the other day, that we'd like to play it live, and we will. We're
going to try to work out something that works, but we've never even tried
it. I look forward to playing it.
- Hey (to Greg), when you do do it live, please add the first verse, because
that's the setup. It will work without it. On the record they did
a little bit to shorten it, took the first verse off. It's just set up
about Washington Square, and the weather, and the emotional tone it sets,
and then it gets into the lead. Probably wisely, for what it is, they shortened
it a bit.
Copyright © 1997