Tuesday, July 19, 2011
THE SUE AKINS INTERVIEW
I told you I was gonna try to finish transcribing my interview with Hendrickson Road House's Sue Akins and guess what? I got it done, jack. Had to do it... after all those months of listening to Sue's music and wanting to get in touch with her to tell her how great the album that she made over forty years ago was, and to actually have her pop up on my little blog? And consent to let me interview her? Those of you who know me well know I just don't do the interviewing-and-transcribing thing any more, but I had to make an exception in this case. There are so many untold stories in the world of music- many artists who were fantastically talented but for whatever reason just didn't "make it". Sue is, in my opinion, one of those fantastic talents. The Hendrickson Road House album was released on Two:Dot Records, a very small private label back in 1970 and wasn't heard by many back then. But, as usually happens, when something is great it's going to be discovered eventually. And vinyl collectors did uncover the album years later and made it a highly sought after (and highly priced) rare collectible on the psych / folk market. Now, forty one years later, the Wooden Hill label has reissued this holy grail on cd (is vinyl to come as well? Stay tuned).
PHILL- You grew up in Ojai, California?
SUE- Actually I was born and raised in Ventura, California, which is on the coast. Ojai is about eleven miles inland. I grew up in Ventura, about fourth generation as a matter of fact. I left home when I was seventeen and ended up in Ojai… quite the happening music scene up there, which was great for me because I'd been trying to get into something. I'd been playing around in clubs as a teenager, at the coffee houses and that kind of thing.
P- What was your early life like in Ventura?
S- When I was like five or six I taught myself how to play the piano on this old upright piano that someone gave my dad. I was playing single finger, playing like "Gravy Waltz" or "Exodus"… I was very into music, my parents played a lot of music. I listened to Tchaikovsky, just about everything… musicals, all that stuff. When I was about twelve my dad gave me this guitar I'd been begging for. I would stop by the music store everyday on the way home, so finally one day my mother gives me this stern look and says "Your father wants to speak to you". I went "Oh God!" but when I went (to see what he wanted to talk to me about) he was sitting there holding this guitar! It was like "oh wow!" That was in '63. So I spent the next three months, other than bathroom visits, in the bedroom learning to play guitar.
P- By this time were you taking lessons?
S- I was self taught. My mother said maybe I should take some lessons, but I was already playing. And to me, the idea of reading music, it was like reading Russian. I took about three lessons, and the teacher finally said "you'd rather just be playing, wouldn't you?" And I went "Yeah." I know some absolute basics about it, but I couldn't sit down and read a piece of music if I had to. I taught myself how to play guitar, piano, auto harp and a couple of other instruments too.
P- So you were pretty much a child prodigy.
S- I don't know about that so much… I think any kid, when they get interested in something and have the opportunity to experiment with it and learn it their way, could probably play any kind of an instrument. Art was another thing that I was interested in. My grandmother was a prolific artist, she had shows all over California. So I wanted to be like my nana, but I really didn't have the same talent in art as I had in music. Music came pretty natural for me.
P- I've seen that with a lot of people that I've talked to over the years, that they did music but they also did some other form of art or something along those lines. I'm kinda like that myself. It's like the creativity manifests in different ways.
S- it does, and I don't know how you are but I'm very fond of math…
P- That's actually one of my specialties.
S- Oh really? Well, they used to call it "the golden thread", which runs through music, art, math, sciences and I can't remember what else. Most times if you have a talent in one you're going to have a talent in another, or an interest if not a talent. I used to dream in guitar chords! So I think there is some truth to that golden thread thing.
P- I asked you before who your influences were, and you mentioned Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Bonnie Raitt…
S- I listened to all of those guys. I think the ladies were really the ones who influenced the kind of music I did. One that I left out, and I don't know how I left her out because she was really number one, was Laura Nyro. I don't know if you're familiar with her…
P- Oh absolutely.
S- I listened to her, and there just was nobody else like her. And there was really nobody like Joan Baez or Joni Mitchell either, but truly Laura Nyro was a pioneer. And just to listen to her I went "Oh, I'll never be as good as her!" But I can do something else, I can do a different style.
P- In listening to the Hendrickson Road House album I was trying to come up with a label for it, since the powers that be seem to always have a need to label music. Would you call it folk, psych, just plain old rock? Because I hear so many different influences.
S- I know, it's hard to say… each song has a different sound to it. Like "Sunny Day Rain" may have a flat honky tonk sound to it. Some of (the album) is folksy. "Theatre King", I called that celestially eerie. "Forget About You" is probably the closest thing to rock, and "Tomorrow Your Sorrow" is soft rock, I guess. ??? and I were talking about it awhile ago.... there's really no title, no name you can put on it that applies across the board. It was just whatever came out of my brain, pretty much. And there was a lot in there.
P- I think that's when the best music is made, when you're not worried about being pigeonholed into one genre, you just do whatever comes to your mind.
S- I listen to it now and it's hard to be objective. I got to where I wasn't listening to it for a long time, and all I had was a cassette copy I recorded from my sister's stereo. Now that I can hear it better on a cd I'm like "you know what? That really isn't so bad." I was pretty critical of myself back then. I could hear every clunker, and I can still hear them but it's no big deal.
P- I think the great ones usually are very critical of themselves. There are things you hear in your music that I'm sure that nobody else would ever hear.
S- Oh, sure.
P- How did you come to find out that the album had become such a big collector's item?
S- I got a call in June of 2010 asking if this was Sue Akins; I said well I used to be. (The person) asked "Does 'Hendrickson Road House' mean anything to you?" I said "well yeah, it's a record I produced forty years ago." And he goes "Well, we've been looking for you for two years" and off we went from there. In that first conversation he told me " Do you have any idea what the vinyl is selling for in good condition?" and I said no clue here. And he told me eight or nine hundred dollars, and I said "Are you serious???" I saw an eBay auction, and this was four or five years ago... someone was selling (a copy of the album) and the opening bid was $400, and it sold for $760. I'm sure it gets pirated and people have made tapes... I should have been mad, but I'm not.
P- One of things about that is that even when bootlegging happens it's getting the music out there to more people. You want to get paid for what you've done, but sometimes it can lead to other things. That's what I'm really hoping will happen in your case.
S- Yeah, you never know. There's a thing called fair use, and I put that under fair use. There's one place where you can download every song, and there's one place calling itself the official site- I put a stop to that one. But as far as the fair use goes, that's fine... I say thanks for the publicity. I am glad that people are hearing it.
P- How did you get started thinking about recording songs, had you been doing live performances?
S- Yeah... I think there isn't a musician alive who isn't waiting for that phone call... "We heard you through the bedroom window and we have to sign you." Every garage band, they already know how to act, they know how to pose. So I don't think any kid who's playing music is playing for any other reason than to get rich and famous and make records or CDs or whatever. That's the goal. When I started playing that was the middle of the Beatles taking the world. So I started playing talent shows and contests and little coffee houses as a teenager.
Phil (Wilson) and I played together for a long time. I think he had heard me play somewhere and somehow (contacted me). He was like the man about town in Ojai. He knew everybody who was anybody. We started out playing in church basements where the teenagers would have their little coffee nights and pretend to be real hip, y'know?
How we got into the recording part of it was that Phil knew a lot of what we called "Proud Mary" bands...
P- Proud Mary bands?
S- Yeah, where they wear plaid leisure suits... well, they didn't wear that, but... they played at the Oaks, which was a hotel bar thing in Ojai, as a trio. And it seems to me that they (were supposed) to do a demo tape at Dean Thompson's studio. Dean did a lot of little things like that with people... audition tapes, he recorded weddings... he was a real sound guy. Phil must have mentioned me (and then introduced me) to Dean... I can almost even remember playing for him and I think he recorded it. Then it was later that Phil came back and said "Hey, Dean wants to record all of your songs." So I do remember we went up there and talked to him, and he said "Nobody's going to get paid for this, but we'll put out this record with all your original songs." So we grinned and went great! Then on the way home I went "Oh my God, Phil, what am I going to do?" He said "Well, you better write a bunch of songs, Sue!"
We had two songs- one of them really sucked and the other one wasn't very good. But the button was pushed, and I started writing songs like a crazy person. Dean knew a lot of bands, and he kinda pulled Norman (Lowe) out of the hat. We got a conga player (Dick Muldoon), he was a retired cop. He did one song, "That's All There Ever Was".
P- One of my favorites. And that's the only song on the album that has those congas, right?
S- Yeah, that's right. But then they decided it was too sleepy sounding and we couldn't do the whole album with congas, so that was that. Norman had this drummer that he played in another band with, and that turned out to be Don Mendro. Norman really wanted Don (to be a part of the group) and we really wanted Norman. So that's kinda how that came to be. By then I was writing more songs with a little more oomph to them, and we started recording here and there. It took a pretty long time to record it from start to finish.
P- Now this was actually recorded in Dean Thompson's garage?
S- It had been a garage, but it was a full on studio when he remodeled it. It was pretty top of the art for the time. It was a sixteen track, and there wasn't one of those around for miles. He had everything and he knew what he was doing. He worked very closely with a thing called the HEAR Foundation, which was in LA. That was about testing children for hearing troubles and designing equipment to use to test them. This recording stuff was really a spin off from that, it was more like a hobby to him. But he had all the equipment he needed to put out some really good sounds, like Arthur (another album released on the Two:Dot label that also fetches high prices on the psych collector market).
P- There weren't many recordings on Two:Dot, were there?
S- Well, Milton Kelly, he was a local guy and I'm not sure if he went on to do anything with his band, but he recorded there... Alan Thornhill, another guy I know (who's still recording regularly).
P- What was the atmosphere like in the studio when you were recording the HRH album?
S- Well, Norman was the rebel. Dean was a very laid back guy... because I was so young and Dean was older and we were given this opportunity I was trying to maintain this adult-like atmosphere so he wouldn't think we were a bunch of morons. Because we could be a bunch of morons! Norman would come in with a full jug of red mountain wine- I've got a picture of him on the floor and there's a wine bottle next to him. Everybody else was taking a little toke here and there, but I didn't because it would make me too self conscious. My voice would sound funny, plus I'd get cotton mouth from it. So everybody else did... I know Don partook of some things. Lots of laughing... Don's a pretty funny guy. And Phil would be kinda quiet. He's very serious when it comes to music. I kinda was too because I didn't want to blow this opportunity, I want to make it good for this man who's doing this for free for us. There were a lot of laughs but we were focused on the music, which is how I explain the cover. I didn't really care too much at the time about what the album cover looked like. Dean said one day, I'm sending the master down to LA tomorrow, what do you think you want on the cover? So I didn't really have much time to come up with anything really cool. I did not consider it a flattering photo later on.
P- From talking to you previously I got the feeling that you didn't like that cover too much. Personally I think it's a great album cover.
S- In the studio there was a time for fun and a time to not fool around, because we didn't like doing things over and over. But it was pretty relaxed.. the more Norman drank, the better he played (laughter).
P- You said before than Dean told you upfront that you wouldn't see any money from this record, right?
S- Yeah, he said we're just doing this and nobody's going to get paid anything. Of course if the record takes off there might be something more to talk about, but we'll just see where it goes.
P- So there was no contract?
S- No, not that I recall. Dean's wife did all the charting of the songs, copyrights and all that stuff. I didn't realize that she was such a talented musician herself. But it was an in-house deal, kind of a family business almost.
P- Once the record was actually released they just threw it out there, they didn't try to get behind it and push it and promote it?
S- Well, nobody really knew- like I said, Dean was a sound guy, he wasn't really a promo guy. I'm not even sure, I thought they pressed five hundred of them but I don't know. We were giving them away, and I don't know if anybody ever sold any. We just wanted people to hear it. There was no internet back in those days, you had to trot your stuff to Hollywood or LA and go door to door, knocking on doors for producers. At nineteen I had (a Ford) Anglia that had no reverse, you had to put it in gear and rock it to make it start! The block was cracked and you had to stop every two miles to put oil in it. So I wasn't going to be driving to LA. I was like an airhead, you know... "the music, the music, the music"... that's all I cared about. All these guys were taking care of all this stuff, and I just let 'em, which is why they got their way a lot of times.
Dean gave a bunch of copies of the album to his sons and they took them off to various colleges- I think they were both in Oregon, actually- they gave out a lot, which explains why a lot of them got so far away (and ended up in other parts) of the continental United States, they gave them to other college students who took them back home. (People would tell me) "somebody in Arkansas has a copy of your album!" They got passed around a lot, they just didn't get passed to the right places.
P- So as far as you know the record never got into the hands of any movers and shakers in the record industry? Because I just think that if someone had heard the album more might have come of it.
S- Well, somebody may have gotten their hands on it and pursued it, but they would have been pursuing thin air because I moved around a lot. And without the internet it would've been hard to track me down because I got married a couple of times and made moves. This one guy from a record company found me recently through Zabasearch... I asked him how he found me and he said "Oh, public records, marriages, divorces, death, all that kind of stuff." (He was looking for me for) two years.
P- Two years... he was really working!
S- It's become a quirky thing now, everybody's going back to all this music from the sixties and seventies (trying to find) these people like me who put out one album and that was kinda the end of that... that's become very popular now. I think there's probably a reason for it... the people are, well, easier to take the music from, shall I say. There's probably a better way of putting that, as to say "oh, we'll give you x amount of money if you let us make cds and records out of you", and the people, older people like myself, go "oh, that's great!" And they get a little pittance and the record company gets a whole bunch of money.
P- Well really I think it's a thing where a lot of people are tired of the music that's coming out today and they want to go back to a time when the music was really good, you know what I mean?
S- Yeah, well I hadn't thought of it that way. I like a lot of alternative music... I like Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, all those guys. I like a lot of the new stuff, and I'll listen to that or jazz pretty much now.
P- Back to the HRH album... after it came out did you do any live shows or was it a thing where you just recorded it and that was pretty much it?
S- We played a little bit... Phil and I continued to play as a duo. After the album was out we did a few more things. There was a funny story- we got booked for a job at Vandenbuerg Air Force Base in Northern California. When we got the job I said "oh my God"... not that I'm against the military or anything. But they had pictures of us, so they knew what they were buying when they booked us, so I said "o-kaaaaay"! We take Norman's Volkswagen van, and as soon as we get on the road they start drinking, and I'm just going "oh God, how did I get here?" So we're driving, and I keep asking "why did they want us?" They guys are just drinking and saying "don't worry, it'll be a blast!" We get up there, and by this time Norman's pretty toasted. We're setting up and getting ready, and I look out and see this sea of military haircuts and I said "oh my God!" We played two songs from the album- dead silence. They looked at us like "what are these dumb hippies doing here?" I looked at Norman, and he was so toasted he was literally cross eyed. He says in this drunken voice "Honky Tonk Woman in A." From then on we played every Rolling Stones song we could think of, Creedence Clearwater, you name it. We played some of the stuff twice. And they went crazy! They were jumping in the aisles. They loved us after that.
P- Did you do any more recording after doing the album?
S- No... the only thing that happened after that, about a year later, Dean called and said he had an associate who wanted to put out a demo for a song, I don't know if it was for an ecology film or something like that. He asked me if I wanted to talk to the guy and come up with a song or something. So I wrote this song, and I never really named it, but we started referring to it as "Beachcomber" because it was about this family who's on the beach and the kids are complaining about the oil and they don't want to walk on the dirty rocks, and they run into this beachcomber guy who's telling them it's weird that he can't find any seashells... fairly dramatic. The song is great, the music is great. I really liked the song but they must have rejected it... the guy decided it wasn't really what he was looking for. I still have the song, though... we recorded it when we were playing one night. That's about the only thing we did after the album.
P- One thing I wanted to ask you was about the whole song writing process for the album. The music has so much feeling, was it all inspired by real life experiences you went through?
S- Well, I think most songs that people write come from something, from their own experience or someone elses. About half of my songs were from personal experience, (like) "Forget About You". Of course, you figure when I'm nineteen how experienced am I? I haven't had the great heartbreak of the century or anything. But "Forget About You", "The Seed That Grows"... very personal if you understand what the song's about. "Tomorrow Your Sorrow", that was too. Some were pure fiction. "Theatre King" was almost an opinion of people who avoid life by focusing on anything that's not real, like doing nothing but reading books day and night or being glued to the television. It was just my nineteen year old brain...
P- But that's the thing about it, that you were just nineteen years old. Some of the insight you had on some of these songs, the depth... I was very impressed.
S- Aw, thank you. I was very focused, like I said, because Dean lit a fire under me and I thought "whoa, time to get with it, girl!" The funny thing is the better songs, at least the ones I like, almost literally wrote themselves. It was almost as if someone stepped into the room, or stepped into the brain and said "get a pencil and write this down as fast as you can- here's the melody, now go figure out the chords." And literally, when a song would start to come to me the words would be coming and I wrote them down as fast as I could so I wouldn't forget them. The melody was there, it was coming right along with (the lyrics). "Forget About You" was like that, "The Seed That Grows", a couple of others... very little changes made to those. And it really was like someone was in my head saying "here, here's what you need to do."
S- Yeah, and it happened over and over again. Towards the end I was getting tired and I was having to struggle to get a couple of songs out. Those are probably the ones I don't care for as much.
P- Which ones?
S- Your latest favorite, as a matter of fact... "That's All There Ever Was" to me sounds whiny.
P- Oh, wow. That's amazing!
S- Isn't that funny? The thing is, I was gonna cut it off (the album). That's how much I disliked it.
P- Oh my goodness!
S- Everybody else liked it. See, that's the thing that I found- people say I have this wonderful voice, and I say "I'm so glad you can hear it, because I can't." Am I in key? Am I in rhythm? Being in key is the most important thing to me, 'cause I can't really hear how I sound. I can say "that's okay, that'll work. Good enough, can't get any better than that 'cause that's all I'm gonna get." But I don't hear what other people hear.
P- I think a lot of people who do music can't really hear it like other people do. You have a beautiful voice.
S- Oh, thank you very much. I think Barbara Streisand can probably listen to herself and say "oh yeah, you are good, girlfriend!"
P- Well, that's possible.
S- I didn't like the way Norman's guitar sounded. My voice was whiny, and his guitar playing sounds like he was whining at my voice (laughter). That's the best way I can describe it. But I'm really glad you like it, it must have some redeeming quality.
P- It's funny because when I first heard the album there were four songs that I fell in love with immediately- "Tomorrow Your Sorrow", "Everybody's Told You", which is my favorite; "Forget About You" and "The Seed That Grows". I took those four off and put them on a cd with some other music, so I hadn't really listened to the other songs on the album fully. Then later I put the whole album on a cd and started really listening to everything... now I can't stop playing "That's All There Ever Was"..."I Wondered If You Knew" has been in my head for the last two weeks nonstop. After you told me about "Theatre King" I started getting into that and really enjoying the harmonies. Every time I listen to the album I find something new that I really like.
S- I hear people say the more they listen to it the more it grows on them and they find themselves wanting to listen to it. This one gal at work took it to her kids who are sixteen and twelve, and they were all over it. They thought it was the greatest thing they ever heard. I looked at Rate Your Music and it said the people who like your music most are men between the ages of seventeen and forty something. That's true, every woman will hear it and say it's great and never mention it again. But the guys will keep coming back, saying "that's a great song, I really like that."
P- What was it like for you after the record came out and not much happened? Were you disappointed or did you have other plans?
S- I was just thrilled that it got done and I got the opportunity to do it. Nobody had any clear plan on what would happen next except that we would make the thing and hand them out. Dean was still in operation for many years after that. Nothing really came of it, and we just continued to play music and do whatever. When I finally got out of music, Phil was getting a little restless. We were still playing clubs as a duo, and I think he was thinking that this wasn't going anywhere, and I could realize that because I'd lost some motivation myself.. playing in bars gets a little tiresome. There was talk about going on a circuit tour, but I was divorced now and I've got the kid... I've got this commitment to raise this child, and raising a child on the road and living a musician's life is probably not the best choice. So after the last gig we had Phil kinda wandered off and did his own thing and I got a day job and pretty much went to sleep musically for several years.
P- And this was around when?
S- Oh, let me think... I have to base everything around how old my son was. I guess this was around '79.
P- Okay, so through the seventies you were still performing.
S- Yeah, we were still playing in clubs. We did a lot of charity events. We were still active. But newcomers were coming along and doing the same kind of stuff. So I just kinda tapered off naturally.
Sue also wanted to add: "You know Phill, you have been the bright light for me in this adventure in the music business. You were so easy to talk to, so accessible and sensible. Your experience has enhanced my experience. Thanks for having me." Thank you as well, Sue... for taking the time to allow me to interview you and for making one of my favorite albums (and I've had as many as 20,000 albums in my collection, so that's saying a lot!). You can purchase the Hendrickson Road House reissue at Amazon (as of this writing they were somewhat sold out but are in the process of restocking, so have no fear, you can still get it). HIGHLY RECOMMENDED MUSIC.