- Mar 2 2021He made two if the greatest unknown pop records of the 1970s and he's about to play in Oz for the first time.
Interview: Who The Hell Is Van Duren?
Interview: Who The Hell Is Van Duren?
Ahead of the release of the documentary Waiting: The Van Duren Story and the man’s first ever shows in Australia, ILYOS talks to the Memphis Mystery Man who found himself in Big Star’s orbit in the early 70s and who made two of the greatest unknown pop albums of the decade.
Rock is littered with supremely talented artists who never got the break needed to crash the charts. One of the great ‘lost’ bands of the 70s was Big Star, who played Anglophile guitar rock-pop – a kind of music now frequently referred to as power pop - in Memphis, a town that still saw itself as the cradles of American rock’n’roll, blues and soul. Ignored in their home town and bedeviled by distribution problems, Big Star got great press but sold few records. For years after their demise they remained the subject of a small cult following, but over the last couple of decades, thanks to the championing of bands like REM, Primal Scream and You Am I, numerous reissues, books, and a fine documentary film, they’ve finally attained the popularity and ubiquity they always deserved.
An artist who flew in Big Star’s orbit in Memphis in the 70s was Van Duren. Van worked with Big Star members Chris Bell and Jody Stephens separately after their respective times with Big Star had ended; indeed he nearly replaced Bell in Big Star. Van released one classic album in the 70s, and for a while was managed by iconic original Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham. A second album he made at the time was finally released in 2000, and he continues to make music and record. Despite this, and the unarguable quality of his work, Van remained unknown even to most Big Star fans, but that is all about to change now, thanks again to a documentary and a collection that reissues some of his finest work.
Van Duren, who still actively performs and records, and who is set to play his first shows outside of the US in Australia in April, has many stylistic influences with the classic pop-rock of Big Star, albeit his music tends to be more keyboard driven. If you like early Big Star or Todd Rundgren at his most melodic – or late Beatles and early Paul McCartney solo and Wings - we suggest you’ll want to catch him when he’s here.
The documentary Waiting: The Van Duren Story, of course, provides ample evidence of Van’s musical capabilities, and it also tells a fascinating story; one that is equal parts tragedy and familiar music business disappointment. Interestingly, and what gives the film a local resonance, is the fact that it was made by Australians. Sydney-based band manager Greg Carey and musician Wade Jackson stumbled across Van’s classic debut Are You Serious? in 2016, and so disbelieving were they that a record so great could be so obscure, they decided straight away to make a film about it and its maker. And so they traveled to the US, in search of Van and his story. Neither had made a film before, so they brought in Jonathan Sequeira, who’d just complete the acclaimed Radio Birdman documentary Descent Into The Maelstrom, to help knock it into shape.
Already acclaimed on the film festival circuit in the States (and a winner at Indie Memphis Film Festival), Waiting: The Van Duren Story will be screened at select Australian cinemas in April, around the time that Van and his band – which will include filmmaker Wade Jackson make a number of appearances around the country. See below for full details. The film’s release also coincides with the wonderful soundtrack album, released on Omnivore, a label that has done fantastic work with the Big Star and Chris Bell catalogue in recent years.
As long-time fans of Van’s work, we are thrilled to chat with Van about his music and career. Here’s what he had to say.
ILYOS: Very much like Big Star’s Chris Bell, you were an Anglophile and a child of the British Invasion, which seemed to have later put you at odds with the main blues/soul thrust of the local scene in Memphis. Was it an institutional opposition to your kind of music in the media or something? Surely there were plenty of other Beatles fans there in the 60s?
VD: I have heard the comment about Big Star, naturally, and it's probably true in their case. But keep in mind that while Big Star released two albums in the first half of the 1970's, my experience in Memphis was playing live in front of people several nights a week. We played some originals but 90% of what we presented was cover songs. Now, that repertoire was not what many local crowds usually heard (as in "Southern Rock") but minds were far more open in those days. My band of the time, Malarky, played Beatles, Stones, Yes, Todd Rundgren, Stories, Traffic, Blind Faith, Badfinger, and 10CC material while mixing in the Eagles, Neil Young, and other mainstream artists on the charts. That band had big, enthusiastic, beer-driven crowds because we sang and played so well and offered such a crazy variety of music.
We were a prog rock band, a Brit pop band, as well as a jam band (frequently doing a 12 minute version of "Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys" by Traffic). The people absolutely loved that band.
So if there was "an institutional opposition" to that kind of music, Malarky didn't experience that because we were not recording artists and had no records to reject. We just played what we liked, music that pushed the 4-piece band envelope, mixing in a few of my originals, and that worked for us very well.
ILYOS: You mention in the film having your life changed when the Beatles played Ed Sullivan, which is obviously a typical story. Who were your other favourites?
VD: I was 10 years old in early 1964, so my friends and I were latching onto music that we felt was for us. We followed the popular bands of the time - Dave Clark Five, Herman's Hermits, the Animals, the Rolling Stones, and then a bit later the Hollies, the Who, and American bands like the Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, Buffalo Springfield and so on.
ILYOS: Did you have any bands of our your own in the ‘60s? If so, can you tell us a little bit about them? You would’ve been late teens at the end of the ‘60s yeah?
VD: Although I led neighborhood bands in quick succession from the age of 12 or 13 straight through 1966 to 1969, the first professional band for me was around 1970. My first professional band was Malarky (June, 1972 - January, 1975). It featured brothers Randy Hampton (vocals, guitar, bass) and John Hampton (vocals, drums – John was later a Grammy-winning engineer and producer), a couple of different guitarists, and myself on vocals, bass, electric piano, and guitar.
ILYOS: Were you connected to the legendary Ardent Studios in Memphis, where owner John Fry taught a bunch of locals how to use the studio, and Big Star had free reign to record. I know you did some demos with Jody. You later worked with another cult Memphis figure Tommy Hoehn who also made some great records – was he part of this Ardent scene?
VD: I was not among the students of John Fry at Ardent, as I first walked into the studio in the summer of 1974--much later than that class of characters. I became friends with Jody at 16, in 1970, before Big Star. I led a band called Malarky in the years leading up to 1975 when we broke up. From there it was a band with Jody, and then in late '75, Chris Bell jumped in. Tommy Hoehn was an Ardent person mid-1970's onward a few years, recording a couple of great albums there. We were acquainted but never worked together until 1996.
ILYOS: A lot of Big Star fans coming from the “power pop” side of things in more recent decades are probably surprised to find out that Chris was such a big fan of Led Zeppelin and things like Free. Were you into that sort of stuff as well in the early ‘70s? To me, you sound smoother and more purely melodic than Big Star, so I’m guessing not.
VD: When I met Jody Stephens in 1970, he was playing a gig with Chris Bell and Andy Hummel as Icewater. It was the last song of the night, and they played "Alright Now" by Free. This floored me as I had been a huge Free fan (I still am) and never heard a band play their material. I also heard Chris (when we played together) toss of Zeppelin riffs one after the other. He was a Zeppelin fan, and we all were. They were magnificently impressive as they blended all of those influences into a signature sound. Since I was a kid, I always have had my ear to the ground for interesting new music. In the early to mid-1970's I was way into Free, 10CC, Springsteen, Average White Band, and I was still following one of my absolute faves, The Band.
ILYOS: I believe you were a big fan on Emitt Rhodes?
VD: Emitt's eponymous LP in early 1970 was definitely inspiring not only for the music but also in that he played all of the instruments. I was fascinated with that concept.
ILYOS: Like Emitt Rhode’s your music and indeed your voice has often been described as particularly McCartney-esque. Was Paul your #1?
VD: I loved all the Beatles. Hate to burst that bubble, but George Harrison was my favourite.
ILYOS: Pop geek question: were you aware of the band Zuider Zee in Memphis who seemed to share a lot of the same influences as you and Big Star but surprisingly don’t seem connected in any way?
VD: Zuider Zee came to Memphis from Louisiana in 1974, and I heard them live many times. They were great. Back in those days, Memphis was far more accepting of adventurous music.
ILYOS: In 1976 you were in a live band, The Baker Street Regulars, with both Chris Bell and Jody Stephens from Big Star. Can you tell us a bit about that band and your repertoire (particular songs – us fans would love to know so we can try to imagine what they sounded like)? There’s a photo in the recent Chris Bell biography of the band rehearsing in an iron storage unit – how was that on your ears?
VD: That band lasted about 6 months, Dec '75 through May, '76, and there are no live tapes. We played a good number of Chris's Big Star and solo material, and some of my songs, and a couple of songs that Jody and I had recorded together at Ardent in 1975. "Feel," "In the Street,", "My Life Is Right," "Don't Lie To Me," "When My Baby's Beside Me," "Back Of A Car,", "Way Out West," "Make A Scene," "You & Your Sister," "Fight At the Table," "Andy, Please," "For You," "Grow Yourself Up," "New Year's Eve," and "Oh, Babe," among others. The mini storage unit was corrugated tin with a concrete floor. It was hot. We didn't rehearse there for its sonic comfort. It was a means to an end.
ILYOS: So did your contact with your producer Jon Tiven come after the Baker Street Regulars? Can you explain how the connection with Tiven came about, how he knew former Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham and what Andrew’s exact role was?
VD: Tiven was a Big Star nerd who befriended those guys around 1973 or '74. When Jody and I recorded our demos in the spring of 1975, Jody sent off a cassette to Tiven and some others who might have connections in the industry to get a label interested in signing us. I met Tiven in person in early 1976 when he came to Memphis for a few weeks, staying at my apartment. Tiven got the tape to Andrew O who was doing a project at the Connecticut studio (the Stones' Metamorphosis), and Tiven had connections to that place. Mr. Oldham came to Ardent in November of 1975 and produced another set of demos on Jody and I. We've been friends since.
ILYOS: You signed to start-up indie Big Sound. The film suggests that your involvement there was traumatic. The one good thing that came out of it obviously is the album Are You Serious? Which sounds like it could well have been recorded on a limitless budget at the best studios in the world. It really is a perfect record. What do you feel about it now?
VD: The Big Sound story is not all sad and traumatic by any means. During the recording of Are You Serious? in 1977 it was a cool experience, and I met a number of folks who I'm still friends with. It was after that record was released the next spring that things began to decline. The recording was produced by Doug Snyder and Jon Tiven and myself. I had the material, the arrangements pretty much. I had a lot of years of music swirling around in my head. Certainly playing live with Jody and Chris and the great drummer John Hampton in Memphis shaped some of the songs' directions. I would record basic tracks of a guitar or piano and a reference vocal. Once those were done, we brought in the great drummer Hilly Michaels who spent two days recording drums on 11 tracks with me on bass. We were the rhythm section. After Hilly's parts were complete, I overdubbed all of the vocals and other parts, with Tiven playing lead guitar on 6 or 7 of the tracks and Doug playing bass on two tracks. 13 separate days of recording, 13 days mixing, 13 songs. Lucky...
ILYOS: The film shows some press clippings – the album obviously did get some good media. I assume though, like with the Big Star records, people just couldn’t find it in the shops?
VD: Big Sound sold 6 or 7 thousand copies of that record in 1978, with distribution all over the USA. They also got airplay on 12 of the 13 songs on FM radio--110 stations around the country.
ILYOS: I know you’re not crazy about the term ‘power pop’ in regards to your music and I understand why because what you did was very diverse, like Todd Rundgren’s was and is. But were you a fan of the band’s that are now called ‘power pop’ – things like the Raspberries, Dwight Twilley, Cheap Trick, and even The Knack?
VD: Not really, except Cheap Trick a bit. They were far and away better than the others you mentioned, but I was late coming to Cheap Trick records. Probably not until after Are You Serious? or later. I consider "power pop" to be a very narrow thing. Kind of a joke, really.
ILYOS: And of course there’s the second album Idiot Optimism, which if anything I think is better than Are You Serious? Were you are of the excitement in hardcore power pop circles when that album finally came out 20 years ago? How did Terry Manning of Ardent get the rights to release that on his Lucky Seven label?
VD: Idiot Optimism was first released in 2000 in Japan by Airmail Recordings. The 2003 version--the recording is the same for both--was released by Terry on Lucky Seven. Both entities made a deal with the studio in Connecticut who had the rights to it all. I didn't witness much excitement at the time, but it was a major event for me personally that it was finally released. Because it's an amazing record.
ILYOS: It was great to see your drummer Hilly Michaels in the film. How did you feel when he had his own brush with fame with “Calling All Girls”? That couldn’t have long after you left Big Sound? I assume he left too…
VD: Hilly was a player on my first record and the Roger C. Reale records cut there. He wasn't in the live band and was not an artist on the label, so he went where he pleased--and good for him. I bought Calling All Girls when it came out in 1980. It's a great record, and Hilly is another underappreciated talent.
ILYOS: After your involved with Big Sound Records, did you form the band Good Question immediately or were there other things in between? Good Question seemed to have good local success in Memphis, and the story of Ringo Starr showing at a show as mentioned in the film was a great one. Was Memphis just too far off the musical map at this point – in terms of the musical mainstream and industry attention – for anything from Memphis to get national attention?
VD: I spent 18 months after leaving the studio/label still playing with my band in the Northeast US, finally giving up and returning to Memphis in Sept 1981. Good Question was formed a year later. Our album, Thin Disguise, was released in '86 and was a big success in the region, airplay and a ton of live gigs. Good Question was one of the tops live bands in Memphis for many years. For me, that was a great deal of success. By then I was way beyond being naive about the music business and chances of "success," no matter how good a record was. That had little to do with Memphis in the 1980s. It was just the nature of the record business. It's much worse now.
ILYOS: Good Question seemed to carry through with your familiar musical influences but with ‘80s production values – would that be true to say?
VD: No, except that the producers of that album were deeply into the production values of the times. Influences ebb and flow and new ones are added all the time. Experience = new paths = musical evolution. You always move forward. That's what we did, and that's the key.
ILYOS: After Good Question, you went on to make a number of other solo records, and, I believe, some records with the aforementioned Tommy Hoehn. Could you outline those records for us and tell us a bit about Tommy and your musical relationship with him?
VD: Tommy and I co-produced and recorded two albums at Ardent Studios. Hailstone Holiday was recorded in 1998 and released in early 1999. Blue Orange was recorded beginning in late 2000, sporadically through 2001 and completed in early 2002. All of the songs on both records were co-written by Tommy and myself, and we shared lead vocals. I consider these two albums to be truly great records, and I hope to see them re-released one day. I also recorded two solo albums, Open Secret (released 2005) andResonance Road (released 2010), both of which I produced and followed the multi-instrumentalist overdubbing approach of Are You Serious? These solo albums are also gems and should be sought out by music lovers everywhere. In addition, I have collaborated with singer/songwriter Vicki Loveland on two albums, Bloody Cupid (2013) andNext (2016). This is an ongoing collaboration that has produced some uniquely amazing music.
ILYOS: When Air Mail records re-issued Are You Serious? in Japan were you aware of the international interest that was building at the time? I believe they also released a live album – what can you tell us about that?
VD: I was oblivious to whatever interest there might have been. The live album was from an FM radio performance in 1978 while we were touring behind the first album.
ILYOS: Now moving to 2019 – The film has been well received, especially in Memphis it would seem. How does that feel? The soundtrack is coming out on Omnivore, who have done a brilliant job representing the Big Star and Chris Bell records to the world. What are you hoping for now in terms of possible doors opening?
VD: Memphis is my hometown, so the response was very humbling and gratifying. Also surprising. The film surprises everybody, and so does the music which holds up really well today. And Omnivore has done a great job. We hope to continue to take this music to any place we can where people want to hear it. That has always been the plan.
ILYOS: I can’t wait to see your show in Melbourne, which I believe will be your first ever performance outside the US. What can fans expect when you all take to the stage down here.
VD: The band features three terrific Australian musicians plus Vicki Loveland and myself. We are in good hands.
ILYOS: Thanks Van! See you in Melbourne.
VD: Oh hell yes
Waiting: The Van Duren Story Screenings
Monday April 8th - Gold Coast Film Festival - Australian premiere
Tuesday April 9th - Blue Room, Brisbane
Wednesday April 10th - Event Cinemas - George St (Cinema 3), Sydney
Thursday April 11th - Cinema Nova, Melbourne
Saturday April 13th - High Tide presents -Central Coast screening
Van Duren & Band in Concert
18.04.19 - The Curtin, Carlton
19.04.19 – Boogie Festival
23.04.19 - Oxford Art Factory, Darlinghurst
25.04.19 - Bendigo Autumn Music
25.04.19 - The Gum Ball, Dashville, Lower Belford
25.04.19 - Baroque Bar, Katoomba
For more information on Waiting: The Van Duren Story, go here.
Fans of Van Duren, Chris Bell and Big star will also want to read the recent book There Was A Light: The Cosmic History of Chris Bell and the Rise of Big Star, here.
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