GOLDMINE: Before we discuss Free Angel Express let’s go back to the mid-1970s. Between the second American Tears album, Tear Gas, in 1975, and the third and final album for the decade, Powerhouse, which the 1978 edition of Lillian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia stated was your finest work, the single “Born to Love” was released, with a different sound from the preceding albums. At first I am reminded of Bad Company, then a bit of T. Rex-like guitar, and finally Grand Funk plus brass.
MARK MANGOLD: Yes. That was between albums. It started out as a guitar driven single and someone at Columbia decided to add horns, so we went along with it. The label was seeking a breakthrough hit single for us. A more rock version of it turned into the song “Slow Train,” almost CCR-like, which was on the Powerhouse album the following year.
GM: The flip side is one of my favorites, “Franki and the Midget,” from the Tear Gas album. The recording of this song has a wonderful sophistication, like what audio lovers enjoy about Steely Dan’s work from the decade. I recently bought new speakers for the office and this song was a perfect test to show off the clarity, separation of sound, and depth of the vinyl record.
MM: I love that song. It is all about that Fender Rhodes electric piano phrase on a touching tale about a love affair.
Flip side: Franki and the Midget
A side: Born to Lose
Debut: June 1976
GM: There were mid-1970s acts on Columbia like you and Pavlov’s Dog, for example, who I enjoy and I feel were unfortunately overlooked. Did you gain any exposure as an opening act for others?
MM: Pavlov’s Dog! Wow! Yes, we toured with Peter Frampton, Gary Wright, Alvin Lee, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Gentle Giant, The J. Geils Band, and many others. We had the opportunity to play in front of a lot of really great people. Then we evolved into Touch after the third album as we got a guitar player and the sound became more accessible because of guitars and huge harmonies.
GM: Moving on to your new album Free Angel Express, when my daughter Brianna saw the ad for the album, she said that the artwork reminded her of a combination of Polar Express and Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
MM: It was done by Stan-W Decker, who I think is one of the best album artists out there now. The idea in the album title was about free expression, but express can also be the name of a train, so I liked putting together the title’s three words. I did a little sketch, sent it to Stan, and he did that amazing artwork.
GM: I have seen Stan’s artwork for Blackmore’s Night, too. Your prior album, White Flags, which we featured in our 2019 interview, was hard to photograph, like The Beatles’ white album. This one really jumps out.
MM: Yes, it was like the white album. The pendulum has swung and we did the opposite here with the new album.
GM: Now let’s talk about some of these songs. “Glass,” which I know another new version of, coming out by your band Touch soon, blends beauty and blues with a key line of “walking on broken glass” in the chorus.
MM: It is a song about empowerment and recovery, being in a painful place, maybe even an abusive place and coming out of it. I tried to take the production to a different level, inspired by Hans Zimmer and his work with the Batman film soundtrack The Dark Knight, for example, with incredible sounds that you can now achieve.
GM: You are working with others on the album, globally, while being based in Sweden, a country that has taken a different approach during the pandemic, which we all watched.
MM: People are being careful here, but it is more common sense, rather than having regulations imposed on the population. They don’t have to be forced into it because they have brains and do what is best for the people and for themselves. It is almost not a problem here. When I go out, I am wearing a mask and social distancing, as people naturally take precautions here versus being stupidly stubborn. We did spend time in New York working on the album last March before it all hit, so that was a good beginning and since then we worked through the internet and Facetime. We did a video, individually shot in Sweden, Germany and Texas. This pandemic is sad and tragic, but we still do the best we can trying to get things done.
GM: “Everything You Take” is a fun electronic treat.
MM: Sometimes you discover a sound and it makes you play the instrument in a certain way. With an organ versus piano or synthesizer, the playing is different, for example. There are so many sounds at a keyboard player’s disposal now. It really becomes like thirty to forty instruments. You can create an orchestra or a choir with keyboards these days, making it an infinite choice, and you have to make decisions. I fall back on instincts more than a traditional song structure, trying to create enjoyable moments for the listeners.
GM: “Shadows Aching Karma” has extensive keyboard playing on it.
MM: I got a chance to work with our wonderful mutual friend Charlie Calv, who joined me on keyboards on this song. I wanted to collaborate and make it very interesting and see what somebody else might bring to the song.
GM: With organ, I often think of the late Jon Lord, from Deep Purple. When I listen to “Can’t Get Satisfied,” my favorite song on the new album, I am reminded of Deep Purple’s song “Lazy” combined with John Kay’s vocal delivery with Steppenwolf.
MM: Oh cool. Thank you. I love those bands, but I was actually thinking of The Rolling Stones. I wanted to play some bluesy keyboards like what Nicky Hopkins has done with them, and maybe the title is a sneaky way to show a Rolling Stones inspiration. I did a little research. The Rolling Stones love the blues legend Muddy Waters and he had a song called “I Can’t Be Satisfied” which I didn’t know when I wrote this song with a similar name. So, this idea of satisfaction has a long illustrious history.
GM: Four years before The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” reached No. 1, The Dave Brubeck Quartet was in the Top 40 in 1961 with their jazz instrumental single “Take Five” with “Blue Rondo a La Turk” as its exciting flip side, which you cover with such liveliness.
MM: I have always loved Dave Brubeck. While it was jazz, his songs were also pop songs in a way, and he turned a lot of people on to 5/4 and 7/4 time. These guys weren’t counting but living and breathing in these less common time signatures, where it is second nature for many musicians to think in 4/4 time. I was very true to their arrangement but just gave the song an additional spark of power.
GM: A couple of your songs remind me of David Coverdale, vocally, including “Rise to the Light.”
MM: That is a great compliment. He is one of my favorite singers. Thank you. Everybody loves the organ sound on Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and I tried to duplicate that sound on “Rise to the Light” with similar movements, sounds and reverbs. It is a song about empowerment, written in an election year, with a lot of people being depressed, and it became a call to rise up and vote.
GM: “So Glow” has a wonderful chorus melody.
MM: Thank you. People say that they want to be better and that they want to shine, so I shout, “So glow! Stop talking about it and do it!” It is a gentle song, but the lyrics really are based on being tired of hearing whining and a desire for those people to just do it. What I would love to do is perform live again and share these songs with audiences, but we have to wait and see. Now I am not seeing shows happening until the 4th quarter of this year. In the meantime, we will also have our Touch band reunion album coming out soon, which you have already heard, and I appreciate your initial enthusiasm for that album too, which you have shared with me, and I look forward to our next session where we can share those songs with Goldmine readers, too. Then there is another keyboard driven band that I am working on with Charlie. Thank you so much and talk with you again, soon, my friend. Stay safe in Florida.