Van Duren On Producing Long Lost Record 'Idiot Optimism' And Surviving A Bio Documentary

The big news this month for fans of innovative music, and in particular the music of the 1970s is that Van Duren's album Are You Serious? is coming back to release after many years and also his second album, previously unreleased in the US, Idiot Optimism, will be joining the first on vinyl from Omnivore Records on October 30th.      

We previously published a substantial interview with Van Duren about the influences of his youth, the development and production of these key albums, and the musical directions he's pursued since then. But today we're back with the rest of that conversation that takes into account his first work as a Producer on his own album Idiot Optimism, and the run-up to the biographical documentary whose production took over his life for several years, and led to some life-changing travels to new climes.

We also want to mention to cassette lovers that there are original copies of Are You Serious?, still sealed, available on Van Duren's Bandcamp page. Go get them!

Hannah Means-Shannon: Can you tell us a little bit about what happened when you took over Production on Idiot Optimism? Did you feel you’d picked up enough skills to Produce your own album after Are You Serious?

Van Duren: Yes, that’s kind of spelled out in the liner notes. Jon Tiven was the guy who brought me in to do the first record and the two other principals on the record label had a falling out just as we started recording the second album. Though John is still a good friend of mine, I really felt like after the first album came out, and had relative success, I needed to follow my own vision even more.

I had pretty much called the shots on the arrangements and some of the production on the first album, so I felt like I had earned the right to be Producer on the second album, since I had earned the right to. I’m pretty much the Producer on Idiot Optimism, though the engineer who worked on both albums, Richard Robinson, was a key part of the sound on both albums. He was a great engineer. We had a great rapport. So there wasn’t a whole lot I had to do, sonically, it was more about the arrangements.

HMS: It sounds like you were mentally ready to do that, having worked before in that studio space, too.

VD: I was very confident. Having written songs as we went along, the material called for a certain approach, and I knew what I was looking for. I didn’t want it to be echoey, I wanted it to be fairly dry. I wanted it to be immediate. Like the liner notes say, I wanted it to be a band feel, as opposed to the over-dubbing of the first album. This one had to rock more and have the appeal of playing live. Some of the ideas are a bit dated now, but I was thrilled with the way it turned out. I jumped in with both hands and both feet and I never looked back.

HMS: Since there are 14 tracks, and 15 songs on Idiot Optimism, I get the sense that this was a period of expansion for you as a songwriter, but what I don’t know is if that was always the case for you. Were you someone who was just always writing? Were you writing even as teen?

VD: It goes back to the time of the demos I did with Jody Stephens. I had written some songs on my own that ended up on Are You Serious? Jody and I had written a few more, one of which appeared on the first album, and one of which appeared on the second album. I’d been writing songs for quite a while, but they were pretty shitty. [Laughs] There was a learning curve to sort out the lame things from the worthwhile things. When I arrived in New York City in 1977, I had that pretty well sorted out. It seems like it. The results speak for themselves.

The thing about recording a second album right after the first has been released is that everything that you think is cool goes on the first album. The what do you do? Fortunately, because of what had happened with the response to the first album, I was really inspired. I didn’t want to repeat what I just did, so it was a blizzard.

HMS: You were writing a lot during that specific time?

VD: Yes.

HMS: Has that continued for you in your life? Do you still write a lot of songs, or have there been periods where you were more interested in performance than writing?

VD: It’s ongoing, it comes and goes. I’ve just finished writing this third album with Vicki Loveland. We write together and it’s all voice memos and iPhones back and forth. It goes on for a long time. We probably wrote or finished portions of twenty plus songs to whittle it down to ten. So there are a lot of unrealized songs that could be recorded. It’s also a way to keep your chops when you’re not playing live.

HMS: I’ve been hearing a lot of about the iPhones lately! It cracks me up hearing the arguments about which apps are best to try to get demo quality. The times we live in.

VD: That I don’t know. My issue with it is memory. I always say my brain is full. I have so many songs from so many decades in my head. I don’t want to worry about trying to remember what I did yesterday. It has been helpful for me for many years. So many things in my phone say, “New Recording”. It’s a good way to keep track of things without having to go into a studio or have recording instruments at home.

This new record that we’ve just done, we recorded most of it at Royal Studios here in Memphis, where Al Green did his stuff in the 1970s. It’s been an incredible experience.

HMS: That’s wonderful. I wanted to know your thoughts, then and now, about piano-based songs. It seems like that’s gone in and out of fashion in terms of Pop music and Rock music. At the time, was it a consideration at all?

VD: That’s a really interesting question. Back in those days, the idea was that I’d been playing guitar, but I taught myself how to play the piano back when I was a teenager, transposing from the guitar to the keyboard. To this day, and actual piano player will look at what I’m doing and say, “What in the hell?” But it works for me. But in terms of writing, you will write differently for the piano than the guitar, so it broadens your approach. I didn’t really think about it as “piano songs” vs. “guitar songs”, I just thought it broadened the musicality.

But a lot of the Beatles stuff, especially from the mid-period to the end, is piano-generated, obviously, from Paul and John. On the other hand, there are waves of that with Elton John, Billy Joel, and the singer/songwriter guys who were actually piano players. Lately, I haven’t really heard any of that. A lot of that is artificially generated, so to speak. I actually try to keep my ear close to the ground on what’s coming out, but I don’t hear a lot that really turns me on in terms of piano songs.

One exception is Sara Bareilles. What a songwriter that woman is. She’s right at the top of my list of favorites. She’s a singular songwriter and artist. She’s a deep well.

HMS: She is someone that lots of people can agree on as being brilliant. But I haven’t heard a lot of piano music lately, either. Stripped down sounds are popular right now, I think, and some people are bringing back older or more traditional instruments. There’s a rediscovery. Maybe piano will be the next wave. People seem to go in circles on these things.

VD: Of course, it’s cyclical. People in the 60s were stealing from stuff in the 20s, like Gershwin. It goes on like that forever.

WAITING-The Van Duren Story (Official Trailer) from Grow Yourself Up Films on Vimeo.

HMS: It’s true.

How involved were you in the planning and filming of the documentary? Did this just descend on your life and take over for a while?

VD: It really is their film, and they approached me. It was shot in 2016. It came out of the blue, but over a period of time, it was a good thing and a bad thing for me. The good thing is that it turned people on to the early stuff. That was a big plus. But it did take about two years out of my life. Viki and I were about to start this new album, and we kind of put everything on hold for about four years until it played out.

We went to Australia and we played shows. Last year, we were on the road for six weeks in LA and London, doing a ton of screenings, and a ton of live shows. We did have a good time, and we had hard times doing it. Now, that’s all played out, since a year ago, we did the last film festival. The film itself is kind of a bittersweet thing. The story is complicated, but I’m thankful for light to be shone on it.

It took a ton of work to go back through my whole life, and it was quite a long journey just to get to the point of it coming out. But we premiered it in Memphis at the Memphis Indie Film Festival in November 2018, sold out a 350-seat theater, which I never thought would happen. I was wrong. We did two more sold out that week. That really shocked me.  Maybe they’ll get a streaming deal, who knows?

HMS: That would be great. At all these screenings, were you giving talks about your music?

VD: Yes, we did a screening at The Grammy Museum in LA, then we flew from there to London and did a screening at a beautiful 1840s theater in Soho. It was just incredible and was about two thirds sold out. But thank God we were in London for five more days and we were able to do whatever we wanted to do. I had never been to England. I didn’t want to leave! Viki went with us and she sang with me when we did the shows in Australia. But we stayed in Earl’s Court and we just went everywhere. She had a connection with Abbey Road Studios, and she got us in for a tour there which lasted two and a half hours.

HMS: That is all so awesome! I’m so glad you went. You have to go back when the world is in a better state.

VD: I just wanted to get in that door for five minutes, so that was the best part of the trip in many ways. Then we went back to LA, and across the Pacific to Australia, and we were in Australia for a whole month. We did nine or ten screenings, one in Tasmania, went to Melbourne twice, three large music festivals, and we played in different cities. People were just pressed up against the stage in awe, like they’d loved this music their whole lives. It was the strangest thing, and it was beautiful. It was beautiful, but it just about killed us.

HMS: I was going to say, that’s an intense schedule!

VD: It all ended up with a film festival in New Haven, where this all started, and some of the guys who played on those records played live with me after that screening.

HMS: That is the greatest!

VD: It was crazy, wonderful. The film is what it is, but I’m kind of glad it’s behind me so I can focus on the new record. And I’m hoping to do another Van Duren record down the road, maybe one more.

HMS: Wow. That would be outstanding. Even with the ups and the downs, and the hard part of all that travel, it’s still monumental and life changing. Nothing could be more real and convince you of the reality of that work than going on a tour like that and consistently talking about it in front of people. It must have changed the way you viewed the music to see all those reactions?

VD: I thought about it a little bit as we went. It was good to be playing those songs live, some of which I’ve played continuously throughout my career. But some like “Life in Layers” and “Bear With Me All The Way” hadn’t been done in years. But the travel and not knowing where the hell you were was something.

HMS: I have to ask you our Tower question, based on our motto, “No Music, No Life” and “Know Music, Know Life”. Which of those do you prefer and what sort of meaning does it have in your life?

VD: That’s a tough choice, since they are both right. I prefer “Know Music, Know Life” since knowledge and experience are everything in life.

HMS: It sounds like the experience of making music and performing music has been the main way in which you’ve interpreted your life.

VD: Absolutely. I don’t know anything else. There’s that “know” again. Well, here I am, for better or for worse, but that’s a great motto. It speaks volumes.

HMS: The “Know Music, Know Life” version is also referred to as “the cosmic question” since it’s so big.

VD: If only there were just one cosmic question. That’s brilliant. I love that.


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