Carl Wiser (SF): Can you tell me how this whole thing started with the Pigs Fly CD?
Cevin Soling: Well, the long story is I played in a band called the Neanderthal Spongecake. Eric Clapton had done his cover of "Layla," of his own song. I thought it was just atrocious, doing this mellow version and that acoustic thing. I thought it was an abomination, and so as sort of a joke I played this acoustic version of Quiet Riot's "Metal Health." It came out brilliantly, and I started adding strings and a choir, and it got pretty insane. But the problem was the original concept of the vocals was supposed to be this hard core kind of slacker vocals over this acoustic sound. But the music was just too good to sort of do that to. So I managed to get in touch with Kevin Dubrow, the lead singer of Quiet Riot, and asked him if he was interested in singing on it. His initial response was no, because I guess Marilyn Manson was responsible for getting the band back together again, and then they were actually going to be cutting a new version of that song to sort of exploit it. But he agreed to listen to it anyway. And then after I sent it out to him, he called me immediately and said, "I have to sing on this. Please let me sing on this." Because it was such a radical departure, and so unexpected. He was working as a DJ out in Vegas at the time, so I flew out to Vegas and recorded with him, and Lindsey Buckingham's son actually was the engineer there. The whole experience was just a lot of fun, working with him. And he was great. I wasn't so much into the heavy metal music, but he was telling me how he had this terrible reputation, but I didn't know anything about his reputation or anything about him being difficult. Because he could not have been easier to work with, could not have been more professional. The whole thing was a pleasure. And I thought, hey, this could be kind of fun to do this kind of concept for a whole album. But not necessarily having people do their own materials, pairing people up with the least likely song that you could imagine them doing.
So the first person I ended up approaching was Don Ho. And I wanted Don Ho to do the song "Firestarter." Getting in touch with him wasn't so easy. Through a local newspaper was how I got in touch. But I tracked down his management team who put me in touch with lawyers, and I told him how I wanted him to do a cover of the song "Firestarter" by Prodigy. And after a bunch of back and forth, Don Ho agreed - I read in interviews later, he said it was his son that told him to go for it - to go ahead and do the project. But he's just a singer, so I had to lay down the music, and basically took care of that on my end. Then I guess about a week or so before I was supposed to fly out to Honolulu to work with him, he told me to send him off the music so he could start practicing with the lyrics. So he gets it, and I guess the following day he calls me up and he says, "Look, Cevin, I just don't think I can do this song. I just can't sing, 'I'm the bitch you hated, filth infatuated,' it's gonna have some trouble with some of my fans. I still want to do this project, but is there another song?" So I'm like, Okay. But at this point I'm kind of scrambling, because I have to lay down the music. So I decide for no particular reason on "Shock The Monkey," other than I just thought it was be kid of amusing, again, for Don Ho to be doing "Shock The Monkey." And quickly recorded a version of the song, then came out to Honolulu. And we're at the studio, I'm working with the engineers. The studio was one of, like, the ten nicest studios in the world. It's on this sort of precipice, so when you look out the window all you see is water all around, so it just feels like you're on this island. The studio was created by this Japanese business man who does all these boy bands in Japan and has just tremendous sums of money, and just creates studios in different paradise locations. So I got there in advance, before Don Ho was to show up, and set the tapes up with the engineer in the studio. And then they started telling all these stories about Don Ho, about not just the sort of legend he is, but how they're saying, Oh, he's a crooner, but the man parties like a rock star. And they started telling me all these stories about just how hard core he parties, and how he's got all these kids on the island, but everybody loves him, and everybody respects him and thinks the world of him. But that he's had a pretty wild life. But never done anything bad, just really enjoys having a good time. So anyhow, Don Ho shows up and he just couldn't have been sweeter or nicer. The whole Don Ho clan just treated me like family and took me out to dinner, and could not have been nicer. I stayed in touch with them after that, too. And was hoping and planning on doing some more stuff with him actually, because that was just a lot of fun.
With that track I ended up re-recording the music afterwards because the music that I had recorded before I got there sounded very much like the original. And I didn't want to just do something that was basically karaoke. So I re-did the music after the fact, which is kind of difficult, because you're playing to vocals, where vocals, as you know, are always recorded last. But since the original thing was done to a click track, I was able to sort of work it out. But I'm just really happy with how that one came out.
SF: And then some of the other ones, I was listening to the Devo version of "Ohio," and I know that's a very personal song for at least Jerry from Devo.
Cevin: Oh sure, yeah. I picked that out, too. And I was very nervous that they were going to think I was being exploitative. In addition to music I do film, and there was a film festival that I had an animated piece at, and Mark Mothersbaugh's girlfriend happened to be there, only I didn't know she was Mark Mothersbaugh's girlfriend. But we were talking after the festival, and I told her how I was in music as well as film. And she said, "Oh, my husband" – I think she calls him "my husband," but I think it was her boyfriend – but she said, "my husband's in film, too. He was in a band and they had some success." I was like, Oh, maybe I've heard of them. What's the band's name? She said, "Devo." And it was like, Oh yeah, I've heard of them. So I told her about the project and asked if there was any chance the guys would be interested. She says, "Oh, I'll pass it on." And then, I was sitting in my office one day, the phone rang, and it was Mark Mothersbaugh. I'm rarely ever star struck, but at that moment I was just taken aback, and at one point in the conversation I mentioned being a really big fan, and there was this horrible, excruciating silence after I said that, and I just felt I should have just kept my mouth shut. It was probably like five seconds of silence, but it felt like 10 minutes or something, and Mark says, "Well, anyway." But then I'd read somewhere in an interview with Paul Weller where was working a project with Paul McCartney, and he started gushing to Paul McCartney. And I'm like, If Paul Weller can gush to McCartney, I don't feel so bad anymore.
SF: Well, Mark's a very humble guy. I talked to him too, I know what you mean. He's not into the whole adoration.
Cevin: I got to work with him again on an animated piece that I did. He did one of the voices for one of the characters. And if you go to my film site you can see that. And that was just a blast.
SF: So it was your idea to record "Ohio?"
Cevin: It was my idea to do "Ohio." I knew about the history and their tie to the tragedy. So I really tried to do that gingerly. That took a little while to get off the ground. They wanted to give me "Teeny Weeny Itsy Bitsy Yellow Polka-dot Bikini," which I guess they had started working on at one point. And I guess it was just sort of difficult getting everyone together and recording. And so they were going to offer that, but then they called me back and they said they listened to it and they didn't think it was good. So at some point in time, they finally all got motivated and got together. I think Jerry is the one who's the most eager to kind of keep the Devo thing going, and I guess Mark was very nervous about putting out something that might not be up to Devo quality, and I think he's finally let the seer of his legacy kind of loom over doing new stuff.
SF: So all these songs, were they chosen by you?
Cevin: Pretty much. The Oak Ridge Boys, I wanted them to do Nine Inch Nails' "Closer." And I had this wonderful arrangement worked out… this very "Elvira" Country version of the Nine Inch Nails' "Closer," with all the doo-wops and poppa oom maus and everything. And I just could not wait to get them in the studio to work on that. It was kind of a similar situation with Don Ho, apparently they had just finished doing a gospel record, and for them to do a track… I had alternate lyrics, you know, they weren't going to sing, "I'm gonna f--k you like an animal," I was going to change some of the words. But they were still uncomfortable with doing that. So that kind of went back and forth and somehow "Wayward Son" got thrown out there. I don't remember exactly who picked that one, but generally I'd give the artist a few choices, and they sort of pick among them. There were some where there'd be really a specific song that I wanted them to do, and there were some horrible disappointments where people had agreed and their label wouldn't let them, or their manager intervened. For instance, Lou Reed I approached to do "Dancing Queen," and he was all gung ho and set to do that, and excited. And his New York manager just said, "Call his L.A. guy and just make the arrangements." And his L.A. guy sunk the project. Rick James was going to do "Thank God I'm A Country Boy," but he was too sick. Jose Feliciano was going to do "I Can See For Miles," but but international Universal Records, for some reason, had some contract issue there. But he was set to do that.
I got the Box Tops back together again, and that was a blast. That was so much fun working with the Box Tops. Especially with Alex Chilton there singing. I didn't produce that. I was in the studio, but the producer on that one was a buy named Benji King, who was the keyboard player for the band Scandal. That studio experience was pretty funny, because he's so full of energy. He's always excited and always really into things. The Box Tops are each one degree more laid back to the next. Coming from the South, they're all kind of very chill. Until you get to Alex Chilton, who's practically catatonic. And so you have that contrast.
The Jackie Chan/Ani DiFranco duet was pretty trippy. Ani recorded her part in Buffalo, and Jackie recorded out in Hong Kong. And I brought the tracks that Ani had recorded in Buffalo out to Hong Kong, and so we go… and I guess I was a little surprised, because Jackie does all these films, I kind of expected his English to be a little better than it is. And his English is okay, but there was like a few places where was stumbling, and it turned into me singing the lines to Jackie and him singing them back to me. Which, if you can imagine how surreal that is. Jackie Chan, he was really sweet. He arrived a bit early, and he had a body guard, which I thought was a bit funny. There was something really funny about him having a body guard, but his body guard had a broken arm or wrist or something. One of his arms was in a sling. So that was all kind of strange and surreal in and of itself. He had just come from some Save The Panda rally and was very involved in a lot of causes, and he was expressing his frustration over the newspapers only being sensational and not discussing the causes and things that he cares a lot about. So he was very earnest that way. But the man is like he's made of granite. If you were to hit him you would really hurt yourself. He was just solid. It would be like punching a mountain. It's just unbelievable how dense he is. And yet he's still unbelievably flexible.
SF: What gave you the whole idea to bring Ani DiFranco and Jackie Chan together for "Unforgettable"?
Cevin: There's a good friend of mine, her name's Jen White, and those were her two idols. She was just in love with Jackie Chan and Ani DiFranco, and so it was sort of a dare kind of thing.
SF: So you produced both of these? You actually went to Buffalo and then to Hong Kong?
Cevin: Ani did her part on her own.
SF: So some of the songs on the album you're producing, they're either coming to you, or you're going to them. And others, they just send you the track?
Cevin: Well, there would always be some consultation, you know, and there'd be back and forth over the mixes. There's only a few where that took place. By and large I was generally physically present. But there were a few that I wasn't - I wasn't present for the Roy Clark.
SF: How did the Roy Clark happen?
Cevin: He's one of the Oak Ridge Boys. And their manager, Jim Halsey, at one point managed every Country act there is, and even had some involvement with Elvis, to some degree. I'm not quite sure how he worked with Tom Parker, but probably as a consultant or something in some capacity. But he had this huge Country roster. And then he decided at some point he was going to sort of take it easy and retire a little bit. Not fully retire, he kind of started an institute where he teaches, and he's still very active and involved. But management takes a lot. So he turned his roster over, sold it to the William Morris Agency. But The Oak Ridge Boys refused to leave. And so he agreed, well, one band he can sort of handle. And he was the one who pitched me on the Roy Clark. Johnny Cash was going to be on the record, and I was supposed to go to Jamaica to work with him. And that was one of the sad phone calls that I got… he had borrowed Elizabeth Barrett Browning's house there and was building a studio, so I was waiting for construction of the studio. And he was going to do The Zombies' "Time Of The Season." And then shortly before I was supposed to go out there I got a call that he was too sick. And then I talked to Jim Halsey about it, and he goes, "Well, I can get Roy Clark." So that was how the Roy Clark track came together. Any track is so much work, it was nice to have something that just sort of fell in my lap, you know. I mean, I was doing all the contract negotiations, I was doing the producing, the contracts, the arranging… everything. Soup to nuts was all me in making it happen. So for a track to fall in my lap was a godsend at that point.
SF: And then how about the Billy Preston song?
Cevin: Billy Preston and Lesley Gore were both part of this one management team's roster. One of the things that was very difficult on the record is I could only find artists that were unencumbered by record labels. The bands had to be able to have the discretion to record on their own without courtesy of a label, which was never going to give the approval. So Billy Preston and Lesley Gore were both under the management of this one team in New Jersey, and so they were kind of… worked out that way. "Girls On Film" and "Dirty Deeds" were both songs I threw out. I think at that point I actually had Anne Murray on the record. Anne Murray, I talked to her publicist about doing this King Missile song called "Detachable Penis," and her publicist's response was, "I'm not telling Anne Murray that. In fact, I'm going to pretend this conversation never took place. I'm hanging up now." So that one didn't happen.
SF: I'm getting the sense, Cevin, that a lot of your work has kind of a surreal feel to it, that you like pushing the barriers in that direction a little bit?
Cevin: Oh yeah, totally. That is definitely a lot of it, for sure.
SF: Is there a way you could verbalize why you decided "Girls On Film" would be a good song for Billy Preston, and "Dirty Deeds" is a good song for Lesley Gore?
Cevin: I guess there's a few reasons. For Lesley Gore, her stuff was fairly empowering as far as female artists and things that she was doing. So it's not like it was the complete stretch. But you still think kind of the lighter girl-group kind of music from the '60s, and here's something that's pretty hard core aggressive. But at the same time, I certainly concede that she was doing edgy stuff in her own way, at the time. And I think as far as Duran Duran, first, I think it's a great song. You know, "Girls On Film." But I think particularly Duran Duran, you think of them as being quintessentially white, and Preston having that real Funk background. So I thought it would be an interesting match-up to hear how it was done.
SF: Was Billy in the studio with you?
Cevin: I didn't get to hang out with him. Peter Noone of Herman's Hermits, I'm an honorary Hermit, because I played on that track, so I think that's one of the cooler credentials as far as on your resume to be able to say that you're a Hermit.
SF: Tell me why you thought "White Wedding" would be the track to do for them, and how that one came together.
Cevin: They have that very sweet, innocent persona. And you think of Herman's Hermits, you think that the cute, adorable Peter Noone fronting this very sweet, innocent thing. And then you've got Billy Idol who's kind of the antithesis of that. But Billy Idol – a friend of mine got to play the song for Billy Idol on the air, and she was interviewing him. I don't remember which radio station, and he was there, and she's like, "Wait'll you hear this." So she played the Herman's Hermit's "White Wedding" for Billy Idol.
SF: And what did Billy Idol think?
Cevin: I think he just said the word, "Frightening." But I don't know if that's necessarily a bad thing.
SF: I noticed that when you did "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'" you were a little bit ahead of the curve, because that song kind of took off on its own a couple of years later.
Cevin: Yeah, and then also Ozzie Osborne re-did "Shock The Monkey," too, so I was ahead of the curve on that, as well. I think by and large I tried to get songs that I like. I didn't want just to do song covers that were just strange, I also wanted to try to pick songs that I enjoyed hearing, too. That was part of it.
SF: So you had an appreciation for "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'?"
Cevin: Oh yeah, great song. This is a weird confession of sorts. The way I first became aware of that song was through a very, very strange cover that I don't think has ever been released, of that song. I was pretty little, and I used to listen to the Dr. Demento Show. And there was this band, Barnes and Barnes, who were known for having done the song "Fish Heads."
SF: I remember "Fish Heads."
Cevin: They did this cover of "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'," only they called it "These Newts Are Made For Crawling." And again, I was pretty little. But that was essentially how I got to learn the song "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'." And yeah, it was a great track, and the strange parody cover was sort of responsible for that.
SF: And then you got the Fixx to agree to do it.
Cevin: Yeah, they took a long time on that track. They were kind of going back and forth, because they really were kind of perfectionist about things, and they weren't just going to do something if they didn't think they could do it well. They made, I think, three attempts at it before they finally were happy with it. But they took it all very seriously.
SF: And where was that song recorded?
Cevin: That was recorded in London.
SF: I'm trying to figure out how this album fits into the big picture of your life and your art and everything you do. Like what your thoughts are on this overall.
Cevin: Hard to answer that. I think I can using big words, like there's the Hegelian dialectic where you take two opposing theses and antitheses, two opposite things, you put it together and have it merge, and it comes up as something completely new. It's kind of forcing that. And I do that sometimes. There's been some other projects, there's a film project that I've been working on where I was in the process of putting on a performance of "Swan Lake" using llamas as the swans. Live llamas. And you can actually catch a trailer of that on the film site. I'd say that's kind of doing something similar to this in that kind of way. I can't say that's necessarily always what I do. But I think where it really fits in is generally I don't have the good sense not to follow through on an idea if I get it. So if I find something amusing, as far as something people might throw out over a few drinks at a bar, and say, "Oh, you know it'd be kind of funny to do such-and-such" and then people laugh about it and it gets forgotten… I sort of end up following through on those things and turning those things into realities.
SF: Are there any examples you can give in terms of your other works?
Cevin: Yeah, I'd say most of the stuff kind of falls under that category, as far as the things I've written, the things I've produced film-wise. But the way I got into film, for instance, I never went to film school, I just had an idea for a documentary after reading this article, this interview with Paul McCartney where he was talking about having dinner one night with John Lennon, and Lennon was saying something to the effect of, "I s'pect we get holes drilled in our heads. I read somewhere it expands consciousness." And McCartney responding, "Well, you get it done, and if it's great I'll think about it." I'm a huge Beatle fanatic, and read all the interviews, and it was so jarring, because generally they're asked the same questions and the same answers and the same anecdotes come up, and I can't imagine how tedious and horrible it must be for them to do interviews, having to repeat the same answers. But this was something that had never been mentioned in any other interview, never came up. And so it was kind of surprising to see the story. And then I did a little bit of research and found the background of this doctor who came up with this theory about drilling holes in people's heads, and how it results in increased brain blood volume. And he believed that it resulted in greater brain metabolism and expanded state of consciousness. So it seemed like there might be some truth to that. So I was kind of curious and decided to study it, but to make it into a film. And I had no film experience, but it was like, Hey, why not make a movie.
SF: Where were you living at the time?
Cevin: In New York. I was living in New York.
SF: So you grew up in New York?
Cevin: I was born in New York City, but I grew up in Westchester County, in Scarsdale. And then went to college and came back to New York City, and I've lived in New York City ever since.
SF: Where did you go to school?
Cevin: University of Michigan, and also Union College, and now I'm at Harvard getting my masters in philosophy.
SF: One thing that kind of struck me about you is how you can have so many balls in the air at once. Is it an attention span thing?
Cevin: It might be an attention span thing. But I think it's just I have so many ideas and so many things that I want to do, and there's just so much time. And it's not wanting to wait to get things done, because if you don't act, the energy dissipates and things that you kind of wanted to do won't materialize unless you act while you have the energy and the interest. So it's just basically there's a lot of things I want to do and accomplish, and I don't want to wait.
SF: What did you study at Michigan and at Union?
Cevin: A little bit of everything. I ended up majoring in English, but it could have been computer science, it could have been anything. Just that at some point I had to declare.
Thanks to Cevin for speaking with us. Check out his Love Kills Theory Songfacts, and visit his website at cevinsoling.com.