Songwriter Interviews

Television founder Richard Lloyd

by Carl Wiser

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On the CBGB scene, his latest solo album, and the biggest misconception about Television.

The only trace of Television on any Billboard tally is "Call Mr. Lee," which on Halloween 1992 reached #27 on their Alternative Songs listing. But you'll have no trouble finding them in lists of the best and most influential bands in rock: Rolling Stone has their debut, Marquee Moon, at #38 on their list of the best albums from 1967-1987, a notch ahead of Purple Rain; Mojo ranks it among the greatest albums of all time. Much of the acclaim has to do with Richard Lloyd's guitar work. He set out to become "a renowned guitarist who's made an irrevocable impact on rock and roll history," a goal he has clearly achieved.

The band came together in New York City, 1973. On March 31, 1974, they played CBGB for the first time, convincing the owner they somehow fit the format of Country BlueGrass and Blues. They didn't, but they took up residence there anyway, turning the cramped club in a rundown section of town into a buzzy hotspot for the young and musically adventurous (it helped that the drinking age was still 18). They shared bills with up-and-comers Blondie, Talking Heads, Ramones and Patti Smith. In 1976, they signed with Elektra Records and made Marquee Moon in three weeks. Released in 1977, it wowed critics and musical types with an inventive guitar sound forged by Lloyd and frontman Tom Verlaine. Their second album, Adventure, was released in April 1978. Three months later, they broke up.

Lloyd and Verlaine each released solo albums, then re-formed Television in 1992, releasing a self-titled album that proved to be their last. The band split again a year later, then re-grouped in 2001. Television soldiers on, but Lloyd jumped ship in 2007, keen on making new music. His latest album is The Countdown, his most personal to date.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): You are known to always strive for a musical progression in your work. Please tell me what you did on The Countdown that you hadn't done before.

Richard Lloyd: Well, for instance on the title track, I did an extended sort of dialogue against which the lead track and the lead guitar is all feedback. I had that in the back of my mind to do for a long time but never did one where a track was completely just feedback, so that was a lot of fun.

Also, it's a very personal record. I end up being very vulnerable in some of it with unrequited love as a theme, and that was actually hard to do but it came out very satisfyingly.

Songfacts: Yeah, and it's very nostalgic. You're singing about unrequited love in "Something Remains" - that's a heartbreaker.

Lloyd: Yeah, thanks for saying that. I'm glad it hit you in that way because that's what it's all about for me at the moment.

Songfacts: What was it that led you to write songs like that?

Lloyd: I have those emotions within me, and sometimes the anger that's present in my guitar playing is a direct result of that anguish that sits under the surface, so I was able to dig deep and reveal it.

Songfacts: Now, that's something interesting: You mention the anger that is in your guitar playing. Can you express that a little more?

Lloyd: Well, the guitar never does what I want it to do. There's always a disconnect between what my hands are willing to perform on the guitar and what the guitar actually is allowing me to present through it. For instance, I may hit a wrong note that is out of the scale or out of the mode that I'm in. I will often then attack the guitar with a flurry of notes. It's like a man walking his dog, and the dog is held by a leash and the dog is unruly so he snaps at the leash. I do that to the guitar at times.

Songfacts: So, it's a means of expression in the same way that a poet would be using words?

Lloyd: Exactly. It is a means of expression - an emotional expression through the music.

Songfacts: Are there certain songs that you could listen to and know the state of mind you were in just from the kind of guitar playing you were doing?

Lloyd: I've always thought about, can the audience tell that? And that's a question that is yet to be answered but it's an interesting question. Often when I'm recording, I have that question in my mind: Is the emotional state coming through? And in describing some of my own playing with the guitar as angry, and your surprise at my saying that, it indicates no, that doesn't always occur.

Songfacts: Most guitarists talk in terms of trying to serve the song, not about putting their own personal emotion into the song.

Lloyd: Well, they should. I am sure many of them are without knowing it.

But there are craftsmen who really don't emote through the guitar. I'm not fond of that, but they seem to get a lot of studio work because they don't steal the spotlight from the singer or the song itself. Sometimes the lead guitar will do that: steal the spotlight. Hendrix got fired a lot from people like Little Richard for upstaging the principal.

Songfacts: When you're doing your own thing you can play whatever you'd like, but if you're working for somebody else, it has to fit their vision.

Lloyd: That's why I don't get called so much. The studio work goes to some of my friends who play with less of a personal stamp and are more technically knowledgeable and able to play all kinds of different things. I can't really do that, or don't do that.

Songfacts: Well, you had a very productive relationship with Matthew Sweet, and one specific song you played on, which is a very aggressive song, is "Sick Of Myself." I'd like to hear your approach to that. [Lloyd played on much of Matthew Sweet's output in the '90s.]

Lloyd: You know, Matthew used to fly me in and he would send me demos like a week before. I'd listen to them through and then I would get there and they would have new songs or different songs. Some songs he would just throw at me, and depending upon the emotion in the song itself, that would lend itself to a certain kind of playing, and "Sick Of Myself" had that kind of angst in it, so I tried to portray that.

Something like "Evangeline" on the other hand, has a very pop sensibility, so I tried to formulate something that would work for that. So it's not always anger, it's whatever the song has put its finger out on a certain kind of character, and I follow that.

Songfacts: Yes, and working with Matthew Sweet it's clear you had a guitar interaction, it's not just you playing.

Lloyd: Oh absolutely, just as much as with Tom Verlaine, I have an interaction - the guitarists themselves have a kind of interaction. With Matthew, he played much more rhythm guitar but he played a very successful rhythm guitar, so it really supported the leads.

Songfacts: When you are in a live environment with Television or with Matthew Sweet, how do you have to adapt as opposed to when you're in the studio?

Lloyd: Well, you're in front of an audience, so that's one thing, so you don't get to take anything back. You don't get re-dos, you don't get overdubs, you're just out on a wing, so it's a wing and a prayer.

But you know, I usually know what I'm doing. Not always - sometimes I just know what key I'm in.

Songfacts: Ah, and then you have to just wing the rest of it.

Lloyd: And I wing the rest of it, that's right. Anton Fier called me up one day. He had a band called the Golden Palominos, do you remember them at all?

Songfacts: Yeah, and that's where you met Matthew Sweet, I imagine.

Lloyd: That's how I met Matthew. And he said, "My guitar player and one of my singers quit and I got dates coming up. Can you learn 17 songs in three days?" And I said, "Well no, but if you tell me the keys they're in and I hear them once, I can do it so that nobody else will know that I don't know what I'm doing, or that I'm flying blind."

It worked out, and Matthew really liked what I brought to some of the songs in the set, so he invited me to play on his album Earth. I'm on three of those tracks. And then there was Girlfriend. I think I'm on nine Matthew Sweet records altogether.

Songfacts: What is the angriest guitar playing you did with Television?

Lloyd: Probably "1880." There was one song called "Vegas," I don't know if that's the title of the song anymore, but that had a good deal of bite and angst. Or "In World." Stuff from the third record - "Call Mr. Lee" has a bit if that, certainly.

Songfacts: "Call Mr. Lee" has what I think of as a devious type of guitar playing. Could you talk a bit about that song?

Lloyd: Yeah. Tom's part is really very simple, and in the verses, I play basically octaves. In the chorus, he's fixed the rhythm and I do a kind of developed, crazy lead, but I did the same thing every time so it's really structured, and the end part is a takeoff from that where I'm more free to go round the chord progression and it just develops from there.

Songfacts: Did the lyrics to the song factor into your playing when you were working with Television?

Lloyd: No. Not for me.

Songfacts: Did you ever question them, ask Tom what was going on with them?

Lloyd: No, because as a songwriter myself I know that's an impossible question to have an answer to. It's like when they ask Dylan what his songs mean. Every single person that hears the music may have a different idea about it.

I've had people ask, "In 'Call Mr. Lee,' is Mr. Lee a Korean spy?" And I'm like, "I don't know - I have no idea." To me, it's just fantasy, and Tom's lyrics, especially in the beginning, were really full of double and triple entendre and they can be taken in several different ways. There's one called "Hard On Love," which could be lewd but actually, the full chorus is, "Why are you so hard on love." But the title is "Hard On Love," so you could take it two ways.

Songfacts: I've heard singers say that they need to explain to the guitarist or the bass player what the song is about so they can get in the mood to play it.

Lloyd: Yeah, that's happened to me occasionally in studio work, but usually with things that haven't seen the light of day, demos and the like. But Tom never did that with me, Matthew never did that with me. I would hear the vocal and I could figure it out for myself as much as I needed to.

Songfacts: There has been a lot written about Television. What is the biggest misconception?

Lloyd: Boy, that's a good question. People think we improv'd, that we had a lot of improvisation, but we worked our parts over. We would take a song apart and put it back together over a period of a year, a year and a half, to get it to a place where we were happy with it, and there is a good deal of structure that isn't at all improvisation.

Then of course, we differentiate amidst what you may call lead work from solos. Solos would be improvisation to a certain extent, but the lead, which I usually took because Tom had to play rhythm while he sang - he couldn't play a lead while he sang, so I usually took the melodic structure of the song to another place - I don't think people understand how organized it was.

Songfacts: Did you have every note mapped out?

Lloyd: We had general ideas, and in some things every note is mapped out, yes. In "Call Mr. Lee," the end solo I would play virtually the same thing every time.

Songfacts: Back in the analog days that was a lot harder to do.

Lloyd: I don't know what you mean exactly.

Songfacts: Well, with Pro Tools you can go in and move things around, but back when you were rolling tape, editing was a lot harder.

Lloyd: I call that "Pro Fools." People will look at music rather than listen to it because they see waveforms and they're cutting according to the wave signal. I'm kind of an analog fellow. This last record, The Countdown, we did on Pro Tools and it came out rather well. I think the digital realm has made great strides and now sounds as good as the analog used to, but for a long time it didn't.

But people can get lost in editing and it's a real danger because you have an unlimited amount of tracks, you have unlimited editing power, and you can just get totally bogged down in that. A producer, Tony Visconti, is a friend of mine - he did Bowie and T. Rex and Bolan and Thin Lizzy. Those acts he produced and he always said he would put the effects on the tape. Everybody else says, "No do that in the mix," but then you get into what he called the "dilemma of choice," having too many choices.

When I do a solo for somebody, I tend to ask for three tracks. I'll do one until it's good, then I'll do another, then I'll do a third one and then we throw away one of them and I keep adding new tracks until we reach a point of diminishing returns, then we have the previous two to choose from. Very occasionally we will compile a track out of two or three solos, but not usually. Usually I go from top to bottom, and the things are structured so much that on elevation that solo is replaying twice. It only diverges at the very end on one or two notes if I couldn't remember what I was doing exactly. But if you listen to it in headphones you'll hear it was doubled.

Songfacts: One of the songs that everybody has been trying to deconstruct forever is "Marquee Moon." Can you talk about putting that song together and what you think of it today?

Lloyd: Well, that took literally a year and a half to reach its final structure. It's like a mini-symphony. Towards the end of the song, Tom gets a long solo, and he would often meander through parts of it, but we had it structured.

I do the song on my own as well, and it's really quite structured: There's a part that's loud and there's a part that's soft, and there's a build-up, then there's a climb - there's actually three sets of climbs - then there's what we call the "birdies," and then another section and then the verse comes back in. So it was pretty well structured after that period of time of aching to look for proper parts for it. And there's a great deal of syncopation going on in it with the drums coming in sounding backwards and my part that trills off the one. It's not easy to learn.

Songfacts: I looked on Spotify and that song has well over 11 million streams. That's telling me that many more people are hearing that song these days than when you had to find an independent record store to get the album. Your work has always been highly acclaimed, but now that it's more exposed than ever, how has that affected you?

Lloyd: It doesn't affect me at all except I still get paid royalties.

Songfacts: I'm wondering if there's another generation that has been influenced by it.

Lloyd: Well that is without a doubt. We were influencing people from the very beginning, and we were very cautious, Tom especially, verging on paranoia. He wouldn't let anybody record the band, wouldn't let anybody film the band, and when people came down like Lou Reed or David Bowie, or any person that was well known, Tom would be all up in a state, saying, "Paul Simon is here and he's going in the studio in three weeks - he's here to steal our ideas."

I don't think that can be done except in a certain referential manner, which is a good thing to have influenced that many musicians. To have that kind of effect is a testament that what we were doing was really strong, really real, really different and worthy.

In the days when bands worked out songs live before recording them, there was always a risk that someone would steal them. The other side of this coin is that once a song is released, anyone can cover it. Bob Dylan (yep, him again) was careful to publish his lyrics before performing his songs, knowing his audiences were filled with musicians looking for material. When he finally released a song, there was typically a feeding frenzy of covers, many of which got more attention than his originals (Peter, Paul & Mary's covers of "Blowin' In The Wind" and "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," for example). He was fine with this, and earned substantial royalties from these hit renditions.
Songfacts: Until a song is published, anybody can steal it though, so in theory, Lou Reed could have seen you play a song and then taken what he could and recorded that.

Lloyd: Yeah, but if he had, there'd be a knuckle war. But luckily, nobody, including Lou Reed, did any of that. They might have taken chord tones, sounds, and done something structurally similar, but nobody straight ripped us off.

But yeah, there was a great concern in the beginning before we recorded these things. We did have demos of the songs and I don't know, but it could be that Tom sent copies to himself to ensure something was time-date stamped for the copyright.

Songfacts: In the '90s, the guitar sound overall changed dramatically with the whole grunge movement. How did you respond to that?

Lloyd: Oh, the '90s were kind of a droll period for me personally. Television did our third record and we did a lot of touring behind it, but it was a very spotty success when we got signed by Capitol. Six weeks after we got signed, the company had a huge turnover and all the people that had signed us and liked us, they were all gone, so the record kind of got lost. Then we were dropped along with about a third of their roster, so we were one of the bands who didn't make a second record for them.

But as a touring act, that was a very prosperous time for us. We went to Brazil, to Europe, we did two shows every year in New York at a 1500-seat theatre in Times Square - we did that for a number of years. We did Chicago, LA, San Francisco... we always went to Seattle, places like that where we were appreciated. America is so large, people don't realize just how big it is, and England is the size of Connecticut. You know, it's really not as big as the influence it has had.

Songfacts: Yeah, but England, they were ahead of us [Americans] on Jimi Hendrix, on The White Stripes, on a whole bunch of American artists that took us a lot longer to catch on to, and that's what happened with Television - you guys were on the cover of New Musical Express when nobody in America was paying attention.

Lloyd: Well, they had three weekly music magazines or newspapers, and we were on the cover of all three of them at the same time. They had a New York correspondent writing about this great scene at CBGB's and Television and the other bands, so the English had been hearing about it, but they hadn't heard any of these bands, so when we went over we started selling out in 2,000-seat theaters, and in America that just didn't happen for us.

Songfacts: In America, you ended up touring with Peter Gabriel right after the album was released.

Lloyd: After Marquee Moon, that's right. That was our first and only opening act tour that we took, and we had a great time. But there was a funny incident about it. In Passaic, New Jersey, for instance, people threw things at us. Our fans were dancing and they had things thrown at them, but the odd thing was that Peter, this was his first solo tour, and during our set they'd be yelling "Pe-ter Gabriel, Pe-ter Gabriel, Pe-ter Gabriel," and after Peter came on - like three songs in - you'd start hearing, slowly at first, "Gen-e-sis, Gen-e-sis," and then that would become the carrying cry. So nobody could win on that tour really.

The Marquee Moon album cover, with an iconic photo by Robert Mapplethorpe
Songfacts: Is there anything you guys learned from that experience?

Lloyd: Yeah. We learned that we were better off playing at smaller places on our own rather than tacking onto somebody else's tour.

Songfacts: So venue size made a big difference for your band?

Lloyd: I think so. Also, as the opening act, the amount of money you're getting paid for the shows is too small to support the actual tour, so the record companies didn't have to budget you and give you tour support. Of course, then it's your money they take off, and off your royalties. We didn't want that, so that's why we stopped after that first one.

Songfacts: You talk about the '90s being a droll time, but I'm curious as to the guitar sound that you were using then.

Lloyd: I didn't change, but extended rhythm guitar stuff with the grunge sound came into focus with what I call the "therapy songs." A therapy song is a song where the verse is very quiet and goes like, "I'm fine doctor, I'm doing well, I'm loving this and my life is good," and then the chorus is like [screaming] "haaa laaa laaa" screaming and yelling. Then it goes flop, back down to a verse, and then it goes back to, "Well, I'm OK doctor."

Reminds me of the movie Psycho: "I wouldn't hurt a fly," and then the chorus comes in... "I wanna kill, I wanna kill." The primal scream.

Songfacts: Yes, the Pixies...

Lloyd: The Pixies, Nirvana, they were primal scream bands.

Songfacts: You talked about being in CBGB and how just being part of that scene got you a lot of attention in the UK press. Out of the CBGB bands that came after you, which were the best?

Lloyd: Oh, they were all good. If you talk about the bands that got signed and then did well - Talking Heads, Ramones, Patti Smith, Blondie - all very different styles and all went on to achieve enormous success. One reason we didn't was we only did two records and then stopped for a decade and did our own solo stuff. Then we got back together and did our third record, which was a flop because the record company dropped out of sight on it - they dropped the ball on it completely.

Interesting, Seymour Stein had signed the Ramones and Talking Heads to Sire among many other bands. Well, I once had a three-hour meeting with him - he was trying to sign Television and we knew that he gave the bands he signed terribly short budgets, like you had to record your album with $6,000, which is a pittance in studio time. But the first Ramones, the first Talking Heads albums, they cost under 10 grand, and we didn't want that. But he said, "You're gonna have people following you around for decades. You're going to be the Grateful Dead of punk." And of course, I liked the Grateful Dead for their first two records, saw them at the Fillmore East five or six times, but then I dropped off the band. But people were Deadheads, and we really developed the Television Heads: a smaller cadre, but the same kind of enthusiasm.

Songfacts: You talked about how the songs on the first Television album were in many cases a year and a half in the making. Once you're past that first album, you're not going to have the luxury of taking that long to do an album under those circumstances.

Lloyd: Well, we had a lot of songs we could have done, and it would have been simple to do our live repertoire - to do 10 more songs - but Tom started writing songs in the studio. That's very discouraging to be asked to go in and basically do your parts in a couple days when he spends six months doing rounds with guitar sounds and not having any lyrics, and then he would have to come up with some lyric. It was kind of a pity.

The way I see it, Marquee Moon was an outward-facing record and Adventure was more neutral. Then, of course, Tom and his solo career became very involuted, so nothing much to say about that.

Songfacts: Can you explain what you mean by an outward-facing record?

Lloyd: It's aggressive - it has songs and lyrics that are very up, not in terms of tempo or happiness, but in terms of vitality. They have a certain vitality that later efforts didn't.

Songfacts: Does that vitality that ends up on the record reflect the mood in the studio?

Lloyd: To some extent, of course. Especially when you're writing songs there in the studio, watching money go down the drain.

Songfacts: Yeah, you're not going to have a vitality if it's just sitting around watching somebody write something in the studio.

Lloyd: Yeah, Tom and Fred [bass player Fred Smith] went to the TV to watch a damn movie in the studio - I didn't take too kindly to that. Wasted hours, you know. They spent $500 to watch a goddamn movie.

Richard is an esteemed guitar instructor with some high-profile clients, including Jeff Tweedy of Wilco.
Songfacts: What is the hardest thing to teach somebody about guitar?

Lloyd: Oh, it's an impossible thing to teach them how to have the very elusive it. You've heard the phrase, "they've got the magical it." I've tried all my life to transmit that to another soul and it can't be done: you either have it or you don't.

There's a saying in alchemy: You need gold to make gold. You have to have a small reservoir of it to achieve the it-ness, and that's impossible to transmit. You can transmit technical stuff and you can hope for the best, and people do get better, but there's a certain innate... I don't know if I want to call it talent. It goes along with the talent but it's bigger than simple talent, and unless you have it, you're not going to get it.

Songfacts: But if you have that in you, can you benefit from a lesson of some kind?

Lloyd: Yeah, you can. All kinds of doors open for you. I once spent some time with Jeff Tweedy, who was Wilco, and he has his own it. We did some touring together - Wilco and Matthew Sweet and I - and his wife flew me into Chicago to spend the day with him and to teach him some guitar, ostensibly to give him a guitar lesson, which lasted about eight hours. We hung out, went to the studio, and I also tried to teach him some things about music and its theory, like the circle of fourths/fifths. I think he put that to good use, but he already had it.

Songfacts: There's such a mythology around the self-taught guitarist, but sometimes you forget that if you're self-taught you still need to learn.

Lloyd: That's right.

Songfacts: The song "Countdown," which is the final track on the album, you're blasting off into space. What's the significance of that and the inspiration behind it?

Lloyd: Well, I've always been into science. I went to an all-science high school and I'm still into science, whether it's chemistry, anthropology, biology, physics, astronomy. And I've always been into the space program. When I was 15 or 16 I was trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life, and I knew that I wasn't going to be one of the people who went to the moon, and I wasn't going to climb Mount Everest. I was not going to go to Antarctica and visit the North and South Poles as an adventure, and I wasn't going to be a yogi in India standing on his head for 12 years. So what could I do? I decided to become a guitarist.

At the same time, I would like to be one of those adventurers who goes out on a limb and goes to the moon, so this was a way for me to put it into musical terms. I've had the opening riff for a long time, trying to organize a song around it, and finally this sort of spoken dialogue developed about being in a spacecraft going outside the solar system.

Voyager 1 has left the influence of the sun behind - it's in interstellar space, which is the first man-made object ever to leave the influence of the solar system behind. I had that as the back plate - the idea-generating force behind The Countdown - that there was a way to get past the solar system. Not only to leave Earth, but leave the solar system behind.

Songfacts: Do you feel a kinship with Brian May and the other guitarists who are very science, astrophysics based?

Lloyd: Without a doubt, sure. I love his work and the fact that he's a scientist gives him a lot of credibility in my book.

Songfacts: What part of your job do you most enjoy?

Lloyd: My job is being on stage, and my definition of a successful musician is the following: "A successful musician is paid to go where tourists pay to go, and when you get there, they applaud."

I've been around the world in one direction: We went from New York to London to Europe, and then from Europe to Australia, then from Australia to Los Angeles, and from Los Angeles to New York. So I went around the world - I circumnavigated it. I remember in the fourth grade being in a geometry class and hearing about Magellan, who never actually made it around - his crew did, but he died in Tahiti or something. I remember feeling this sort of sense, you're going to go around the world, Richard, and I put that out of my mind because I couldn't imagine how that circumstance would actually come to fruition. And when I was sitting in the airplane doing it, it just came back to me, that this is what I had been thinking about: the future.

So, I don't think there is such a thing as time, necessarily. That's a construct. When I went to South Africa to produce a record, they had a different sense of now. In fact, I learned it because they weren't able to get me something - I wanted a meteorite and they kept saying, "It's coming, it's coming now," and I found out that "now" means sometime before the two parties die. "Now" is like dream time. "Just now" is pretty soon, like the Jamaican "soon come, little while"... it could be a couple of weeks.

New York "now" is now - it's like immediately. I kept saying, "when is this thing coming?" and they'd go "now." Finally, Jimmy Nevis - it was his record that I was producing - said to me, "Maybe you don't understand, 'now' doesn't mean 'now' here," and no, I didn't understand, but I do now.

November 26, 2018
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