By Jeb Wright
As space-traveling ‘Star Trek’ Capt. James Tiberius Kirk, William Shatner explored strange new worlds, sought out new life and new civilizations and boldly went where no man had gone before. These days, Shatner’s feet are firmly on the ground, but he continues to explore new territory in the music studio.
His latest album, “Ponder The Mystery” (Cleopatra Records), is Shatner’s first foray into progressive rock, and he’s in fine company. Legendary artists including keyboardist and saxophonist Edgar Winter, Hawkwind alumni Nik Turner and Simon House; The Doors’ guitarist Robby Krieger; country superstar Vince Gill; guitar icon Steve Vai; jazz guitarist Al Di Meola; Tangerine Dream’s Edgar Froese; and Foreigner and Spooky Tooth guitarist Mick Jones offer accompaniment to Shatner’s lyrical musings on topics ranging from aging and depression to love and beauty.
GOLDMINE: I am used to talking to rock stars, not cultural icons.
WILLIAM SHATNER: I am a burgeoning rock star. I am a progressive rock star. Can that be possible?
GM: This day and age, it is hard to do. But if anyone can pull it off, it is you. “Ponder the Mystery“ is your new album that you’ve done with Billy Sherwood. You have said that this album is quite possibly the most creative thing that you’ve ever done. Considering your career, that is a huge statement.
WS: I started writing some words to be put to music with Ben Folds a few years ago. I understood hooks, and I understood rhyme. I’m passionate about the onomatopoeia of the English language. I hear the music and the rhythm as we talk. I was brought up that way as an actor. I love poetry and all of that kind of thing. I didn’t really have an insight into music, into the song, until after “Has Ben.” Later on, I did all of these cover songs for the label Cleopatra. My fantasy there was that I collected all of the sci-fi songs that explain the mystery of Major Tom stepping out of the capsule. [David] Bowie leaves him stepping out of the capsule, and I explain what he did next. He walks on the moon, he dances in the sky, he’s a space cowboy, he goes to heaven and he goes to hell, all while the spaceship is breaking up.
When they asked me to make another album, I created out of nothing this fantasy upon which I hung the hooks of the song. I said, “I will write about a guy on the beach in despair, an hour before sunset. I will take him through the changing of light and the changing of his mood until he finds joy at the end in the beauty in the world. My last line of him is what remains of beauty, both in his personal point of view and how we’ve destroyed the earth and what remains beautiful. I wrote those songs out of my fantasy.
GM: Tell me how you met Billy Sherwood.
WS: Brian Perera at Cleopatra, the label, introduced me to Billy Sherwood, who I had no advance knowledge of, whatsoever. I was told he was wonderful. The instant I met him … you know Billy, he is like a large animal. You cozy up to him because he’s got the bulk and the warmth and the love … He reminds me of a soulful Angus cow. I know people who are in love with their cows because they’re soulful. His dark eyes and his shaggy hair and his bulk all contribute to this mass that you fall in love with. That would be enough for most human beings but then he comes up with this talent, this multi-faceted, on pitch, creative music. He is a creative guy who knows so much about each instrument and he knows so much about composing and harmony and melody … the list is endless. By the time you’re finished with him, he is a singing kangaroo. He’s always one jump ahead of you.
GM: You have guys like Robby Krieger from the Doors on this thing and Steve Vai…
WS: They are among the best guys in the world.
GM: Do you listen to them? Were you familiar with them?
WS: No! I am an ignoramus but I have this glimmer of intelligence that tells me to delegate to those people who know, and these people know. Then, of course, when I heard them … my musical knowledge in every area is so primitive, but I hear them and I recognize beauty because music is universal. These guys are universal in their appeal because they make beautiful things. The mystery of counting the beats … I mean that’s magic. How do you keep that up? I am good to one and two and three and four. I am good to four. After five I lose track … how do you keep track?
GM: I will play the Devil’s advocate here, Bill. You have a natural talent for the spoken word. You have a natural meter to your speaking voice that is unique and identifiable and that is the same thing a true musician searches for.
WS: Thank you, I appreciate that. Somewhere in the clouds of self-doubt I see glimmers of that. I see a hint of that somewhere in me. I know that I have an affinity to the rhythm and the pattern and I love music.
I had the occasion to be at a concert the other day in Disney Hall in Los Angeles. The hall is incredible for its acoustics. Yo-Yo Ma played with the Los Angeles Symphony and I was out — I was going to say out of my mind, but it was more like I followed him, spiritually, in the music he played, because that is the way he plays. He plays spiritually. The cello is an extension of his spirit and not his body. He’s not sawing away with horsehair and guts, he’s making a sound out of his head, and that’s where I want to go. That is where Billy is approaching. These guys, who have musical knowledge, not just at their fingertips, but in their soul, are the people that I love to be with.
GM: I want to talk about your fantasy that you married up with Billy’s music. Is this fantasy perhaps deeper than you said? Is it more about a guy in your stage of life who has been through everything you’ve been through, who is dealing with all of the serious topics you talk about on the album? Is there a little bit of you in that story?
WS: Of course these lyrics are me. As you well know as a writer, the words you choose come from your experiences. The words you use to describe what I am saying will come from your experience. You will try and convey to your readers what I am saying. It will be you interpreting me, but that interpretation comes from your life experience. These lyrics are my life experience. There are many levels to these lyrics. If you really look at these words, then you realize they really work on many levels.
GM: I think that is what makes this one deeper than the space one you did.
WS: It is deeper, and that’s why I said that I think this is the most creative thing that I’ve ever done.
GM: You are performing this album live.
WS: I am working with Circa. Can you believe that? I’ve been rehearsing six hours a day with Billy [Sherwood] and Tony [Kaye] and Scottie [Connor] and Ricky [Tierney]. I get to call them by their first names.
GM: Since you admitted that you don’t listen to these guys, I will let you know Tony is kind of a big deal.
WS: I know. He may be a bigger deal than Billy. Tony Kaye is pointed and narrow, and his talent is concentrated. He is so focused on that keyboard. He’s a giant.
GM: This is not film or even a play. Are you nervous about going on stage with a band? This is stepping outside of your realm.
WS: Totally. What I’m nervous about … the words are in front of me. Although I will know them, I will have them in front of me. The joy is working with these guys. Coming in at the right time is a little bit dodgy, but I am relying on Billy to lead me in. He’s beginning to worry about his solos, so he is leading me in less and less, I may add. The anxiety comes from the thought, “I hope this is as good as I think it is.”
GM: I think it will be, as it’s so unique.
WS: That’s my attitude and everyone else’s attitude right now. Because we think it’s good, maybe you in the audience will think it’s good. These three performances that we are having in the Los Angeles area are in renowned places where musicians and comics and the people whose feet are hitting the ground in front of an audience go. This is where I will be for the first time. I have lived in Los Angeles almost all of my adult life, and I’ve never been to these places; I’ve only heard of them. Now, I am about to perform in them as the lead singer in a progressive rock band. I have written a new song for an encore, as there will be the possibility of an encore. The new song is very amusing.
GM: That is awesome.
WS: It really is awesome.
GM: I am seriously asking this; I am not being silly. You have had an amazing life with incredible ups and downs, and you’ve written a very personal piece. What can I take away from this interview that you consider to be very important in life?
WS: Human beings have one thing that is uniquely them, and that is the ability to make music with things other than their voice. The example I have used already is horsehair and cat gut. You make a hollow tube, and you purse your lips, and you blow, and suddenly you are making an incredible sound. That incredible sound resonates in our soul, and we know that we’re the only animal that does that. Whales sing and dolphins click, but nobody takes something outside of their body and does something that we call music that appeals to our primitive selves as well as our eloquent selves. To me, I am pondering that mystery, and I am also a part of that mystery.
GM: Lastly, you have a quote that I have used: “The line between making a total ass of yourself and being fundamentally funny is very narrow.”
WS: Well, you’re going to see it on stage! We will find out whether the people are wiping their noses or wiping their asses after the show! GM