By Jeb Wright
If there ever was a question whether The Alan Parsons Project made its mark on popular culture, the Austin Powers movie franchise cleared things up when it used the progressive-rock group as a punch line in “The Spy Who Shagged Me.”
But the works of the daring, studio-only band, which surfaced in the mid-1970s, are no joke. Featuring a rotating cast of artists, cemented by founder Parsons and songwriter Eric Woolfson, the Project recorded rich albums featuring iconic songs, including “Eye in The Sky,” “Games People Play” and “Don’t Answer Me,” among others.
The Project’s debut, “Tales of Mystery and Imagination,” was a concept album built around the works of Edgar Allan Poe. In 1977, the group changed labels to music mogul Clive Davis’ Arista Records, where work began on the album “I Robot,” inspired by the Isaac Asimov novel of the same name (but missing Asimov’s titular comma). “I Robot” reached No. 9 on the Billboard album charts, while the single from the record, “I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You” cracked the Top 40. These days, Parsons weaves his musical magic live as well as in the studio, including February’s rare, 10-performance U.S. tour.
But long before Parsons found success as a songwriter and artist, he had an amazing career working as a sound engineer with Sir George Martin and The Beatles on the iconic albums “Abbey Road” and “Let It Be.” A few years later, he found himself in the thick of things as the production engineer on Pink Floyd’s classic “The Dark Side of the Moon.”
And while you may be able to take the producer out of the studio on occasion, it appears that you can’t take the studio out of the producer — well, at least out of Parsons. He recently produced albums for ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro (“Grand Ukulele”) and Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson (“The Raven That Refused To Sing”). Parsons also is teaching master classes on sound recording and has released the educational DVD series “Alan Parsons’ Art & Science of Sound Recording.”
Goldmine: Before we even get started, I have to ask you if you knew beforehand that you would be part of a joke in the movie “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me?”
Alan Parsons: No, I didn’t. A friend of mine went to see it and told me that I had to go see the movie. I was disappointed that I didn’t know about it, because I could have gotten involved with it in some way. I think we could have crossed interests between the movie and the album I was making at the time, which was, coincidentally, called “The Time Machine.”
GM: In the past, The Alan Parsons Project did not play live. It is great that you bring the music to a live audience now.
AP: It helps pay the rent. In a dwindling record market, it helps a lot.
GM: Are you just playing the hits, or will there be any new songs?
AP: We are essentially promoting the back catalog. We are calling it The Greatest Hits Tour, which is what it is. We might end up playing one new song. We are going to have to see how it goes down.
GM: Will you record a DVD from this tour?
AP: We have a live DVD that was recorded in Spain in 2004. It is probably time that we do a new one. We had considered doing one of the Florida shows for a DVD, but the logistics didn’t work out. We are rethinking it for the summer sometime.
GM: I have heard you want to become an actor.
AP: At the tender age of 64, I thought it would be fun to get into something new. I come from a family of actors. My great-grandfather was an actor. My cousin was Oliver Reed. My mother was also an actor, as was my uncle. It is a shame not to cash in on that. I thought I would take a few lessons before jumping into this, and it proved to be very valuable. My acting coach is teaching me how to audition well. I am looking forward to attending a few auditions and hoping to get a small part, and, then, maybe a big part before I’m too old to be doing it.
GM: You’re really serious about this.
AP: Oh, yeah. I think I have always been a frustrated actor. I have dabbled in other areas, such as magic; I enjoy doing magic tricks at parties. I think entertainment is in my blood and that I am going to go from music and magic to acting.
GM: You’re a famous producer. You are now teaching master classes.
AP: I did a class in Las Vegas at the Palms, which has a studio. The drummer was Aynsley Dunbar. I know him from living in Santa Barbara. We had never played together before; we’d only been social friends.
GM: Can anyone take your classes?
AP: They are open to the public. These master classes are essentially an extension of the DVD series called “Alan Parsons’ Art & Science of Sound Recording.” There is a wealth of information in these series. The master classes are open to anyone who signs up. There is information on our website on how to sign up. You can go to
www.artandscienceofsound.com to see what it is all about.
GM: You can add instructor to your resumé.
AP: I suppose so, yes. It is not really teaching. I just do my job and other people look on. I encourage the delegates to chip in and offer ideas. I like to let them contribute in some way. It is very fun. It is quite difficult on the artists who have to have 24 producers in the control room, but we make it work. People have come away from these classes saying how much they enjoy them and how they are going to work differently now that they took the class. It is very encouraging.
GM: I heard rumors that there is going to be a career-encompassing box set out in 2013.
AP: We are planning a June release. It will include “Tales of Mystery and Imagination,” which is quite miraculous, because it was on an entirely different label than all of the other albums. Sony and Arista teamed up with Universal to make this project work. Everything will have bonus tracks on it, and there will be a bonus disc, which is our unreleased album titled “The Sicilian Defense.”
GM: You are going to release that album, finally?
AP: I am going to release it. I’m not going to say that it is being released against my will, but that is close to the truth [laughter].
GM: We will finally be able to hear if it is as terrible as you’ve always said it was.
AP: Yes, you will.
GM: Will you be hands on with the project?
AP: Oh, yes. Most of the work is yet to come. We have to assemble artwork and running order and assemble bonus tracks — there is a lot of work to do. We will probably begin mastering in April.
GM: Tell me about the album you produced for Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson.
AP: That album is done and is out. It is called “The Raven that Refused to Sing.” It is an excellent album, and I think people will enjoy it. Steven is great to work with, and he is actually an incredible engineer. He is more of a mix engineer, and he has established a reputation for surround mixing, which makes me very jealous. I thought I was the king of surround mixing [laughter]. Because he knew that he wanted to play with his band, he wanted a producer. He said that he wanted to have someone engineer it that had a sensitivity for prog rock.
We only overdubbed a couple of solos, but other than that, it is all live. We actually met face to face on the first day of the session. We Skyped, so we knew what each other looked and sounded like.
GM: You are also producing a ukulele virtuoso.
AP: Most people know him, but they don’t know his name. He’s the guy that had five million hits on the Internet playing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” His name is Jake Shimabukuro. We’ve done an album. Some of it is completely solo; some has a rhythm section of a band, and some is with an orchestra. All of it is live.
GM: How did you get involved with this project?
AP: I feel I sort of discovered him. I went to see him in a small theater in Santa Cruz. I asked to meet him, and I told him that he was incredible and that I would love to make an album with him. He said yes. I don’t think he ever thought that he would be making an album with an orchestra. You will never guess who the arrangements for the orchestra were done by ...
AP: Kip Winger.
GM: Kip is much more than a heavy-metal bass player.
AP: He is a very talented score writer. The album is out; it came out in September. Try and find a site that has it on hi-res, or buy the CD on Amazon.
GM: You worked with EMI when you were 17 years old. How did you know this is what you wanted to do with your life at such a young age?
AP: I think it was probably something I was born into. I had musical training and I was into gadgets. It was really a predestined thing. I discovered while working an apprenticeship at EMI in West London that the idea of getting a job at Abbey Road Studios was not unreachable. I wrote to the boss, and he granted me an interview. I was working there within three weeks of writing to him. I think I just had the right qualifications. I had a musical background, and I was technical and worked in a department which had been producing reel-to-reel copies of commercial albums onto tape.
GM: Would you say the music industry was going through a lot of changes at that time?
AP: It had just gone into stereo for rock music. I got the job soon after “Sgt. Pepper.” Stereo was still an afterthought. Stereo vinyl was on the way up, and cassettes were just coming in. Recording technology was moving incredibly fast. We went from 4-track to 8-track to 16-track to 24-track in no time at all.
GM: One of your first projects at Abbey Road was to work with The Beatles. How were you not star struck?
AP: I was. No one could walk into a room with George Martin and The Beatles without slapping themselves and asking if it was really happening. I was extremely fortunate. I still remember that moment to this day, and I always will.
GM: How wonderful was it to meet someone like George Martin and learn from him?
AP: It was great. It was really a learning process. I was new to the recording process, and every step of the way I was soaking it up. George was always there to answer questions, but I don’t feel he acted as a mentor or a teacher to me. The recording engineer was underneath him. I asked a lot of questions of the engineers. There is plenty to learn from the engineer — just as there is to learn from the artist and producer.
GM: Being so young, did they pick on you at all?
AP: I had to make and serve them tea. Abbey Road had a catering staff during the day, but at night, I was the one who had to go and make the tea.
GM: The Beatles were breaking up at the time you worked for them. Was there a lot of tension between band members?
AP: You can tell from the movie footage that they had pretty long faces. I was just soaking up the atmosphere of being there. I was much more thrilled about hearing them making music than whatever they were going through personally.
GM: You have a couple of anniversaries. ‘I Robot,’ the second album from The Alan Parsons Project, is 35 years old.
AP: ‘I Robot’ does have an anniversary, but I was sure you were going to mention the 40th anniversary of something else. My memory cuts off at 40 years, so I have no idea what that would be [laughter].
GM: I will jog your memory, but first, let’s talk ‘I Robot.’ This album was a tribute to Isaac Asimov.
AP: I think it is. The conceptual philosophies that we incorporated into the album were quite different than Asimov’s philosophies. Asimov’s rules of robotics contested that robots could never do any harm to human beings, whereas our take on it was that we would develop robotics to the point where they would become more intelligent than us, which would, ultimately cause our demise.
GM: This concept was very ahead of its time.
AP: I think it was. It was also very beautifully timed with the release of “Star Wars;” it came out at exactly the same time. I think a lot of people thought R2-D2 was “I Robot.” It was very much a concept album. Concept album is a dirty word this day and age. In those days, it was very hip and very fashionable.
GM: How did you write the concept, have different singers on each song, throw in a few instrumentals and still make the concept work?
AP: You start off with a song or two, and then you ask yourself which part of the story does that tell. You get some more songs, and you jiggle them around and try to make sense of the concept. Then you change things around and see what’s missing, and you write that song and stick it in there. It is a bit like making a jigsaw puzzle; you have to put everything in its right place.
GM: You started the album with the instrumental song “I Robot.” I don’t know if you did this on purpose, but I thought it was brilliant that the opening song lacks the human voice. It really sets it up as the robot coming to life.
AP: I think it was meant to be the birth of robotics. The song was represented like that, although I hadn’t seen it quite the way you presented it. I can happily say, “Yes, that was the concept.” I think we settled that as the opening pretty early on. It was my intention, when writing it, that it would be the first song on the album.
GM: “I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You” was the single. Did you agree with that choice?
AP: It seemed a logical choice. It was certainly the most up-tempo song on the album and sort of disco. I am not saying it was a disco song, but it was released during the disco madness. It was a dance track. I think it had a certain rockiness to it, which is why it did so good at radio.
GM: I love “Breakdown.” It could be a robot breaking down, or it could be a human having an emotional breakdown.
AP: Throughout the album, we never made it quite clear if it was man talking to machine or machine talking to man. “Breakdown” and “I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You” are both very good examples of that. They could be seen from either viewpoint.
GM: Give me the story behind the end of the album, “Genesis Verse 32.”
AP: Genesis, Chapter One, only has 31 verses, so we considered that this piece would be the next verse, where God created robots.
GM: The cover of ‘I Robot’ is very cool.
AP: I remember that Storm Thorgerson, from Hipgnosis, who did all of our covers and all of Pink Floyd’s covers, had a different version of the cover at first. His first design was much more like a “Return to the Forbidden Planet” type of cover. It was very much a ’50s comic book robot. There were lots of buttons and a glass dome over his head and he was in a spacesuit. I didn’t go for that. I said that I would rather not do it like something from the ’50s.
He came up with that image with the rings inside the skull. I thought that was brilliant and it worked so much better. The background is of the, at the time, newly constructed airport in Paris. We were on the moving walkways in the background.
GM: How important was ‘I Robot’ for your career going forward?
AP: It was certainly important because it was the first album we put out after signing to Clive Davis’ Arista Records. It felt frighteningly strange to be on the same label as Barry Manilow. It was very important to Clive and to us to go in with our first record with Arista and come out with a big bang. ‘I Robot’ was the album that really put us on the map. “I Never Want to Be Like You” got so much radio play that we were never off the radio. Fame came almost overnight.
GM: This paved the road for all of the albums that would come. It must have been a very exhilarating time.
AP: It was, very much so. I was coming to America, and I could switch on the radio and hear my music. It was really extraordinary.
GM: Why didn’t you tour then?
AP: I wish we had. It was a slight conflict of thinking between Eric and myself. I didn’t mind standing on the stage and playing my guitar. Eric would have been fine being a keyboard player. We felt that we would not have been able to recreate the orchestral sounds. MIDI had not even been coined yet; it was about five years later. It was impossible to easily recreate all of the sounds. The only way to have done it back then would have been to go out with a huge band with lots of singers and a choir and an orchestra. It would have been so big a scale it would have been nearly impossible. It was in 1995 when I knew that, now, I was ready to dust off my guitar and learn the songs and assemble a band and come out and do it. The keyboard technology was able to emulate the orchestral sounds. We took out two singers who could mimic any of the voices on any of the albums. GM