William Shatner Biography
Now he's boldly gone where no actor has gone before, releasing his second album a mere 36 years after his first. That 1968 debut, The Transformed Man, has been widely ridiculed for its theatrical, spoken-word renditions of pop songs like "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds." But with Has Been, the Emmy-winning actor is having the last laugh. He still doesn't sing, but his wise, witty meditations on aging, death, fame and family now transcend mere camp value, thanks to the pop mastery of producer/co-writer Ben Folds and Shatner's own sly, self-deprecating charm.
ARTISTdirect managed to grab a few minutes with the busy recording artist and star of Boston Legal, to find out more about his journey back to the recording studio, his working relationship with Ben Folds, and how telling the truth helped him rediscover his muse.
Has Been seems to be getting really good reviews all around.
Yes. We're actually stunned by it.
It's fair to say that your first album, The Transformed Man, was...I guess we could say, misunderstood over the years. Were you nervous, given that earlier experience, that people wouldn't "get" this album as well?
The Transformed Man -- good, bad or indifferent -- didn't work because the cuts were too long. The literature and the song attached to the literature made for six-minute cuts, and I wasn't conscious of the necessity of keeping it closer to three minutes. So nobody ever played the six-minute cut, so the listening audience didn't get a sense of what it was I was trying to do.
People didn't really get the full picture of what the album was about.
Exactly. Unless they played the album in its entirety, and once they did that, a lot of people -- like Ben Folds -- said it had an important influence on them. So I was aware that I had to be careful in that regard…and also we were aware that the people who scoffed at The Transformed Man might be pre-conditioned [to do that] to Has Been. So we had to be very careful, especially for the first number.
Which is "Common People," a cover of a Pulp song.
Exactly. And I thought it was a brilliant choice on Ben's part -- it was his choice and my reluctance in the beginning, until I heard it in its completion and realized that it was a great choice. It had a story for me to act, if you will; it had a rhythmic progression; and then putting Joe Jackson in it was inspired, and made it musical as well -- it wasn't just spoken word. So that first number, "Common People," introduces the album, and once people accepted it -- and even better, as you know it's gotten really popular -- it gave [them] an opening into the album.
You first worked with Ben Folds on his solo album Fear of Pop. How did that collaboration come about?
He wrote me a letter saying he'd like to work with me, based on his listening to The Transformed Man. And I didn't know who he was. I had to show the letter to one of my children, who knew him, knew his work, and went on about it. And I, who was tempted to treat the letter as a fan letter and have somebody else answer it, paid serious attention to it. And [so I] got ahold of him, and said, "yes, I'd like to work with you, too."
By this point you had listened to his albums with Ben Folds Five and you were impressed with them?
Yes. His musical taste and his abilities -- he went from esoteric music that really requires some musical knowledge or modern musical tastes to appreciate, to ballads and discernible rhythm and melody and words. So I was very impressed. And then he sent me a sort of half-written song called "White Oleander," [which was] intriguing.
So I showed up at the studio. And he has a very meticulous way of directing. And here I have this stranger directing me, and I'm not quite sure of his talent…I was a little apprehensive about it all. But slowly I began to get a feeling for the song, which I began to realize was [from the point of view] of a misogynist. He didn't see that when he wrote it.
So you brought an interpretation to it that he really didn’t foresee.
Exactly. So once that wonderful experience between the two of us took place we both wanted to do something else. And then, this most unusual of occurrences transpired, [with] the Foos brothers, who owned Rhino Records. And Rhino Records had done all those Golden Throat albums on which they poke fun at actors trying to sing...
Prominently featuring yourself and Leonard Nimoy among others.
You got it. So now into my office march the Foos brothers, who say, "we've sold Rhino Records, we've started a new label called Shout! Factory, and we'd like you to do a record." At that precise moment, the phone rings -- while they're in my office -- the phone rings, and it's Ben. And he's saying, "I'm coming to LA, would you do 'White Oleander' with me onstage?" And the Foos brothers came, by the way, to that [show] and that made them even more enthusiastic. So I said to them, "Would you accept Ben Folds as a producer?" They jumped out of their seats. I said to Ben, "Would you produce this for me?" He said absolutely. And in that one moment, the shape of the record took place.
It was fantastic. I knew they were asking for an album that maybe they could poke fun at, that didn't have anything to do with art. And I say to Ben, "What am I gonna do?" And he says, "Tell the truth." And I thought, wow, that's unique. And he hands them what became Has Been. They [the Foos brothers] flipped out.
Wasn't at all what they were expecting?
Not at all.
But they were pleased with the results?
Oh my gosh, they've gone crazy about it.
It seems to me like the big difference between The Transformed Man and your work on Has Been is that there is still a humorous element to some of the album, but it's much more self-aware this time. Is that fair to say?
I think so, yes. I had no idea of humor and self-deprecation those many years ago, so I took a very serious approach on The Transformed Man, whereas I saw the value of alternating emotions and aspects of life in this album.
And it seems like the humorous elements actually make the more serious and more dramatic moments on the album that much more effective.
Well, that was my feeling.
What about some of the guest musicians on the album -- and there's a lot of great ones. Were any of them people you were familiar with?
No, not at all. They were entirely Ben's invention, friends of Ben's. And that included all the studio musicians who turned out to be extraordinary musicians in their own right. Even Lemon Jelly was a choice by Ben, a group that he had heard and admired, and I've come to admire them.
You've been really having a career resurgence these days -- a hit TV drama [Boston Legal], an Emmy, a reality show on Spike TV that's about to come out. With all of this going on, are you going to have time to go on tour in support of Has Been?
Only in LA because of [Boston Legal]. I don't know when I could put enough days together to do any other kind of tour.
Will fans have to wait long until your third album?
I think that's up to the Foos brothers. If they would like us to do another one, I certainly would love the challenge.
It was 36 years between albums this last time.
I don't think I have enough left for another 36.
Even after these years, do you still have fans show up to your public appearances in Spock ears?
Sure. [They] probably had a permanent operation. [laughs] What you're asking is, are there die-hard Star Trek fans? Yes, there are. A lot of people out there still watch Star Trek and like me for it. And this latest series is having an effect. It's all good.