Exclusive Interview: The Who's Pete Townshend
Fri, 27 Oct 2006 12:04:42
As the guitarist and principle songwriter for The Who, one of the greatest rock bands of all time, Pete Townshend needs little introduction. Despite tragically losing bassist John Entwistle to a heart attack in 2002, Townshend and The Who's other surviving original member, singer Roger Daltrey, are back in 2006 with a world tour and their first new album since 1982's It's Hard.
ARTISTdirect had the privilege of asking Pete about the genesis of the new music, the experience of hitting the road again, and what "My Generation" means to him more than 40 years after he wrote the immortal line, "Hope I die before I get old."
AD: Some of the songs on the new album were originally part of a "mini-opera" called "Wire & Glass." Can you explain what gave you the idea for that project, and how it eventually led you to doing an entire new Who album?
PT: The order of creative action was a little different. In 1998 I started working on a radio play called The Boy Who Heard Music. This was supposed to be a follow up to my first radio play Psychoderelict from 1993. In 2000 I decided to develop TBWHM story as a novella. My aim was to inspire some songs. In 2005 I published the novella as a serial for 25 weeks on a blog. The reader feedback from that blog helped me to write a very concise summary that I was then able to transform into a 'lyrical summary.' That comprised the set of lyrics that became Wire & Glass, a ten song mini-opera.
These ten songs complemented about ten (on other subjects) I already had, and I later wrote another five, so by then I felt I had enough songs to commit to a Who record, and thus to our first world tour.
I had been working on songs for a possible Who album since 1999, before John Entwistle’s death. After John‘s death in 2001 Roger and I were a little confused about what to do about a new record. Roger was anxious to try, but wanted to record a conventional record in the studio with a band. I wanted more control, wanted the record to be as much as possible about just Roger and myself, and made the record in my home studios, adding musicians later only if I needed them. Roger added his vocals at the end.
AD: When you were writing these songs, did they feel right away like they were part of a Who album, as opposed to a solo record or some other project?
PT: I am not particularly driven to do a solo album at the moment. I am enjoying working on my autobiography, and working with my partner Rachel Fuller on "In the Attic" (her webcast shows). But these songs were always intended to be a part of The Boy Who Heard Music, that could have become a small theatre musical, or even a big Vegas spectacular. Now the music and something of the story is going to reach the public via the Who album, I am very happy. This way I reach a much larger audience, and of course one that is the most open to my experimental work. Most of my writing lately has been loosely aimed at a Who release of some kind.
AD: How has the audience reaction been to the new songs? It's tricky for any band to play material that people haven't heard yet, but I would think it's especially tricky when they're all waiting for you to bust into "Won't Get Fooled Again."
PT: People have been great. We do bust in "WGFA" near the end, and they seem happy to wait. A lot of our front row fans seem to know Wire & Glass off by heart, and the other new songs are acoustic songs, so they fit into our set in an almost theatrical way. What we are doing now seems to work. I don’t need my new songs to be played on stage. I wouldn’t mind if we didn’t play them. I just want to know that when we play live, and we play the old classics, that people know we are still creative and connected to the world today. We have ridden roughshod on the back of our old catalogue for too long; when I left the Who in 1982 my intention was never to work with them again.
So just having the records coming out is all I need, getting to lay new stuff on stage is a bonus. Roger is singing all the new songs really powerfully.
AD: Are there any old fan favorites that you just flat-out refuse to play? Any songs that are officially "retired" at this point?
PT: No. We can play anything. For many years, when we were still really children, we stopped playing "My Generation" because we thought we were too old. That was the Who themselves buying into the wrong interpretation of the lyric "I hope I die before I get old," which is more about a state of mind than actual age. Today if we don’t play a song it is simply because we don’t have enough time. You can download up to 425 Who songs on Yahoo. And there are many more.
AD: How did the loss of John Entwistle affect the band -- not just you and Roger but other longtime touring members, Rabbit, Zak, Simon, etc.? Has it made everyone closer? Raised the "preserve the legacy" stakes a little?
PT: It changed the dynamic between Roger and me. The rest of the band may have had their own feelings, we all adored John, and loved his playing, but all had to work out how to carry on and make a living, support our families etc. The legacy doesn’t need preserving. It looks after itself. Roger and I felt that our relationship was clearer, cleaner, simpler. I write the songs, he sings them. There was no band democracy process to contend with any more, just two musicians with slightly different needs. All we had to do was wait for the right moment, and in the meantime continue to support each other as friends. John’s death was thus both a great tragedy and a great blessing for Roger and me. We miss John. But we love him even more now he’s gone than we did when he scratched his nose (and tapped his bass) in that extraordinarily adorable way he did when he was alive.
AD: Has the experience of touring changed dramatically for you since the "old days" or do you get a funny sense of déjà vu when you go back out on the road?
PT: It’s completely different. Now it is like a luxury holiday. Huge hotel suites, mobile recording studios, internet links, iChat with the family (including the five dogs), Lear jets, Senator buses. Pure luxury all the way. Plus I get treated like royalty wherever I go. No déjà vu, ever. I find it easy, fun and of course hugely lucrative these days. Touring is a way of seeing in action what I now believe is my essential passionate thesis: a great music concert is one in which people gather together to listen to music and lose themselves and their troubles. Maybe they find some peace, hope or a new vision in the "meditation" that a good concert really is.
Rachel Fuller my partner and I just played a show with Willy Mason, a young songwriter we admire. While I watched him, and continue to listen to his music, I find myself inspired to a real hope that we can get this life right for once. We have another chance. Music is pretty amazing. It’s all about the listener, not the performer.
AD: As someone who still suffers from bouts of tinnitus, how do you handle the noise that comes with doing a live show? And are you still concerned about how much time "the iPod generation" spends with earbuds stuffed in their ears?
PT: I get tinnitus, but I don’t suffer any more. I ignore it. Live shows are not as loud as they used to be. I am loath to call people today "iPod" users because that suggests it is only one manufacturer’s kit that can damage our hearing. I don’t think iPods, or any small portable players, damage hearing if they are used carefully. But everyone’s ears are different. If you ever hear ringing in your ears, give them a long break. That’s what I did, and now I can hear pretty well for a 61 year old guy who thought he’d be deaf by now. I’m not. Simply take care with those earphones, and earpieces. A good tip: Don’t drink, or use drugs and listen to music on headphones, your pain threshold will be lower and you will be more likely to turn up the volume.
AD: What's your favorite song (or songs) to play live off the new album?
PT: "Tea & Theatre" and "Endless Wire." They are so different to the usual Who songs we play live."
AD: Do you listen to any newer rock bands? Anyone in particular you like?
PT: "Rock is not what I would call what I listen to -- it’s too varied. I listen to Sufjan Stevens, Sigur Ros, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Martha Wainwright, Willy Mason, Yo Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, Alison Krauss, Bach, Mark Mothersbaugh, Keith Jarrett -- all kinds of stuff."
AD: Apart from the obvious (family, friends, your beds), what do you miss most about home while you're out on the road?
PT: My home studio, those five iChat dogs, my wonderful home helpers Susan, Paul, Perry and Peter, my books, the view from my house, my nifty built-in wardrobes, my old Airstream bus, my classic sailing yacht (that seems to win most of its races while I am somewhere else), my little VW Lupo. It’s all serious luxury stuff. I know how to live. But even dogs are expensive, especially when they’re sick. Most of all I miss my cinema. I have a basic video projection system with a good 7.1 sound system from Harmon. I like to wait for movies to come out on DVD and watch them nice and loud. I love the way surround sound in movies has revitalized the recording of large orchestras, it’s the best way to hear new orchestral writing. My favourite composer is John Williams, but I really like Thomas Newman too. My favourite DVD viewing is Alias. I’m just getting into Medium too. Yes, it’s the pretty ladies I like, but Jennifer Garner and Patricia Arquette can damn well act. Great scripts too I think."
AD: What goes through your minds now when Roger sings that immortal line, "Hope I die before I get old?"
PT: I spoke about this earlier. But I can say a little more. I now find myself thinking, and sometimes even singing, "I hope I die before I get old." This time I am not being ironic. I am 61. I hope I die before I get old. I hope I die while I still feel this alive, this young, this healthy, this happy, and this fulfilled. But that may not happen. I may get creaky, cranky, and get cancer, and die in some hospice with a massive resentment against everyone I leave behind. That’s being old, for some people, and probably none of us who don’t die accidentally can escape being exposed to it. But I am not old yet. If getting older means I continue to cherish the lessons every passing day brings, more and more, then whatever happens, I think I’ll be happy to die before I get old, or after I get old, or any time in between. I sound like a fucking greetings card.
Death is not what is important in life, it is life itself. If you’re young and reading this, let me pass on to you the words of my teacher and master since 1967 Avatar Meher Baba, these are words that were beyond my comprehension when I was 24 years old:
"Don’t worry, be happy. Do your best and leave the results to God."
I think I understood the second part, because I thought then I knew what God was, or was not. But the first part? Don’t worry? Be happy? How do you do that? Get drunk? Take drugs? Meditate? Be a hippy? Go live in a cave? Laugh when someone beats you up and steals your bag? How is that possible? If you are 24, you have plenty of time to work it out. Trust me, in the end it becomes possible.
A huge thank you to Pete Townshend of The Who! Their new album, Endless Wire, is available now in the ARTISTdirect store! !