Allan, your new album “Two Sides To Every Story” shows us a musician and songwriter, who’s been performing and recording for a half of a century. However, your album is miles away from a too serious late work. Where does the lightness and the humour come from?
After a time one takes themselves less seriously as a writer, and for some of us, in life too. And who couldn’t use a bit of levity in the crazy times we live in?
I’ve long admired the humorous yet thoughtful writing of artists like Randy Newman who could make you laugh, and at the same time make you think. My father was always cracking jokes around the house, and who knows maybe that helped forge my appreciation for the way laughter lifts you up. For me writing with humorous intention only began in recent years and if I latch on to an idea or title that makes me laugh out loud then I know it’s worth pursuing, often times it happens quite by accident while I’m driving my car or paddling out to surf.
But not everything is light on this album – as the name and the artwork of the album suggest. In “Troubled Times” you took an unflinching look at the darkly disturbing aspects of our contemporary worrisome world. Does pessimism have to predominate in this day and age?
No, I don’t believe pessimism has to predominate but it certainly is there, everywhere, waiting for us to buy into it. There is some serious shit going on in the world right now, maybe there always was, but it can paralyze you with fear if you let it and spoil your perception for anything but gloom and doom. As a songwriter I’ve written about many diverse subjects over the years but even when I’m shining a light on the darkness I try to leave one with hope, any kind of glimmer of hope because a world without hope is one I wouldn’t want to be in.
Your music is hard to put in a pigeonhole. On your new album you are blending elements of rock, blues, jazz and soulful vocals. How would you describe your music yourself?
I’ve had a hard time describing my music. I’ve never known what to call it. It’s always had record company guys scratching their heads trying to put a tag on me.
The main piano player on my records has been Michael Ruff, he’s described my music as R&B – Rhythm and Beach! Noted L.A. pianist and composer Jim Wilson said of my music “Steely Dan meets Joni Mitchell meets folk meets pop meets jazz…”
The thing is I started out singing in doo-wop groups listening to a lot of rhythm and blues as a kid, then came Dylan and the Beatles, followed by Steely Dan and Joni Mitchell with the blues, jazz, Brazilian and African influences finding their way to my hungry ears. So a lot of styles of music informed my pallet. I was writing songs and performing my blend of music long before there were any identifiers like Americana, West Coast or Indie etc. So when asked into what bag does Allan Thomas’ music fit my answer is songwriter rock blues and not-exactly jazz.
You worked on “Two Sides To Every Story” with an exquisite cast of musicians – to name a few: Keith Carlock, who played with Steely Dan, Will Kennedy of the Yellowjackets and Bryan Kessler. Tell us about the recording sessions. How should we imagine your working process in the studio?
Imagine a guy in his van at the beach under the shade of some ironwood trees in view of the waves of Kauai. The guy probably has a nylon string guitar in his arms and is writing music or lyrics after coming out of the surf. He works for weeks sometimes, creating a groove and melody, or maybe working on the lyrics first.
After arriving at the gist of a song he heads to his recording studio and finds a drum or a percussion loop – many times one created by Steve Gadd – to record his rhythm guitar to. After recording his rhythm guitar keeper part he records the lead vocals recording as many takes as he needs to get it right. After editing the guitar and vocal parts he tries to figure who to add next. That is a tough one as most players would rather not be next because it puts a lot of pressure on them to come up with some main arrangement parts to an otherwise naked track. These days he mainly records one person at a time rather than head to New York, L.A. or Nashville to record live in a studio with the band mates all there playing spontaneously together like he did on his first two albums. He’d rather record this way but due to time and monetary constraints he records part by part and the players are so good that it almost feels like they were all playing together at the same time.
So it’s usually a guitarist (Bryan Kessler) or keyboardist (Michael Ruff) comes next. After the best of their parts are chosen, the song stems are sent to Jimmy Johnson (James Taylor – Steve Gadd) for his magical bass contribution using his own recording rig and preamp. Now the song is starting to take shape so it next goes to one of the sweetener guys or gals he usually employs for either tenor sax, muted trumpet, chromatic harmonica, or backing vocals. After editing in those wonderful contributions the whole thing as it stands is transferred digitally to the drummer (Keith, Will or Joel Taylor) who adds his contribution and then the artist known as AT sits back with a huge smile on his face and feels like the luckiest musician on earth to have brought these amazing individual players together and marvels at the cohesiveness of the track.
Most of the songs have been written in recent times but the three-acoustic-guitar instrumental “In Search Of…” reaches back to Malibu, California 1973. Did you accidentally stumble upon it after all these years?
Actually though I wrote “In Search Of…” way back in ‘73, I never stopped performing it or thinking about recording it. Let’s just say it took me a while (43 years!!!) to learn how to play it well enough to record it! And finally on this record I was ready. Since I’ve been writing for over 50 years I’ve got quite a catalog of tunes some 400 in number, and whenever I’m recording an album I record the newest ones first, but always look back into the archives for something that would now fit the new record. It’s nice for some of those older compositions to finally see the light of day complimented by what I feel are some of the worlds greatest players.
Allan, you’ve been living on the Hawaiian island of Kauai for over 30 years, but your musical adventure started in Brooklyn, New York. Tell us about your first musical steps. I give a short keyword: doo-wop!
I grew up mainly in Brooklyn. It was the early ‘60’s. To give the kids in Sheepshead Bay Brooklyn a place to hang out rather than get in trouble in the streets the educational system opened up the schools at night to give the kids a place to go where they could listen to records, play basketball and chill.
I was around 12 years old at this point and one night I was at school and went to the bathroom. I was sitting in the stall when all of a sudden I heard the sweet strains of a 5 part vocal harmony group rehearsing. The bathrooms had tile floors and great reverb. These guys were practicing a song and next thing I knew I had chills running up my spine. That was a defining moment for me as I said to myself “that’s what I want to do”.
Within months I found other like-minded kids who also wanted to put a doo-wop group together and the next five years were spent practicing and performing with doo-wop groups in Brooklyn and Long Island. I loved it with a passion and it gave me a reason and a path to pursue which I did with a vengeance. I also noted that girls seemed to take a shine to singers and being a shy young guy that helped me get closer to the fairer sex. A win-win situation!
One of you next musical stops was the legendary songwriting factory Brill building. How should we imagine this place in its heyday?
The Brill building and the 1650 Broadway building were in mid-town Manhattan and were the two main places where most of the publishing and record companies had their offices. The two-block area was humming with musical creativity.
After my tenure with the a cappella vocal groups was over I started making forays into Manhattan on the subway from Brooklyn to see if I could get someone to notice my talent as a singer. This was before I became a songwriter and guitarist. I was around 17 years old and itching to make a name for myself in the wider world of professional music. At first I would go from floor to floor knocking on the different doors where all the current action was happening.
Songwriters like Carol King and Gerry Goffin, Leiber & Stoller and Doc Pomus were in some of those offices cranking out songs for some of my favorite artists like The Drifters and The Coasters. A lot of record companies who had artists like Solomon Burke and the Shangri-Las also were populating the area. Once they opened their doors to me I would try to convince them to hear me sing. But without any accompaniment it was a tough sell.
Eventually I hired a pianist to accompany me singing Marvin Gaye and Temptations songs, but still it wasn’t an easy time. I finally realized I’d better get out my acoustic guitar get busy and learn to back myself. That was the best decision I’ve ever made because it sent me on the road to songwriting which has been my passion ever since.
I remember walking near the Brill building with Kenny Vance of Jay and the Americans – a hit vocal group of the time – and James Brown walked by and hi-fived Kenny like they were old pals and it struck me how right in the middle of Manhattan was a little island of music creators whose borders were those two buildings.
One time I knocked on the office door of a singing group called the Tokens who had a big hit with the African melody “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, somehow I convinced them that I could be a songwriter so they made an appointment for me to come back and sit in one of the little writing stalls with one of their writers from the group but nothing came of it and I had a long way to go before I even became a song writer. But at least I was trying to find my place somewhere in the music and the business of music.
I’ll never forget the day I had left the immediate area around the Brill building and walked up to 55th St. near the St. Regis Hotel my eyes to the ground perhaps looking for another $20 bill like I had found years earlier. Quite accidentally I bumped into someone. Upon looking up I saw an interesting older gentleman with a curled mustache accompanied by an attractive woman who walked an ocelot on a leash! I immediately apologized but he just said no worries and kissed me on both cheeks in that European way and they went on their merry way. I stood there for a moment sort of stunned when a women passerby asked me if I knew who I’d just bumped into. After replying that I did not know who the couple was she explained that it was none other than the famous artist Salvador Dali and his wife Gala. Manhattan was a magical madhouse.
Through some connections in the music world I signed a recording contract, now at 17 years of age, and was flown to Houston Texas to record with famous producer and wild man Huey P Meaux. He’d had success with artists like BJ Thomas (no relation) Freddy Fender and Jerry Lee Lewis and he recorded nine songs with me employing an African American backing band and a Caucasian backing band eventually releasing a single on a big New York City record label called Scepter Records whose artists were Dionne Warwick, The Shirelles and one of my favorite R&B singers Chuck Jackson. Amazing times for a young man.
At age nineteen, you began writing songs, became a part of the Greenwich Village coffee house scene and performed in legendary clubs like the “The Gaslight” on MacDougal Street. Did Bob Dylan influence you back then?
When I first heard Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” on the car radio I had to pull off the road and just feast my ears. It was like nothing I’d ever heard. At the same time The Beatles’ “Rubber Soul” had just come out and I realized these guys had something to say and were writing their own songs. Weed was just making its way into our teenage lives and it seemed to help open the gateway to creativity. I happened to have a broken heart at the time having broken up with my first girlfriend and just picked up my guitar and poured my heart out into my first song. It was cathartic and addicting and was the start of my love affair with songwriting which has continued to this day.
When I began frequenting the Village at first in ‘67, Dylan had already been there six years earlier. It was a time when artists like Bonnie Raitt, Kris Kristofferson, Phoebe Snow and all kinds of blues, folk and jazz musicians were populating the area. You could hear jazz pianist Bill Evans for the price of a cup of coffee! My main haunt was the Gaslight where I was discovered by David Wilkes which led to my first album record deal with Sire Records. Those intimate little coffee houses were the perfect environment for young songwriters to get valuable experiences playing for a small audience who listened to your words and allowed you to tell stories. I wound up playing in all those places one after the other most times solo sometimes with another guitarist backing me. I wound up opening shows for the great Richie Havens and even the phenomenal jazz group Weather Report. Great memorable times I’ll never forget.
It seems that in your musical career you have always been in the right place at the right time. In the early 70s, like many other musicians, you were drawn to the palm tree-laden warmth of L.A. California. How did you experience the Californian music scene in the 70s?
My first two-week adventure to L.A. was in 1967. Flower Power was gaining momentum, the music of Buffalo Springfield, The Mamas and the Papas along with The Byrds was in the air. I returned to Southern California in 1969 after spending 16 months in the NY jail system for telling a narc where he could buy $7.00 of weed. I needed some palm trees and sunshine in my life. It was a great time to be there. I played rhythm guitar for a folk rock singer named Lynn Kellogg for a while and nearly got my throat slashed in the upstairs dressing room of the Troubadour music venue by her overly protective manager while we were opening for Tiny Tim. I performed at open mic nights at the Ashgrove and McCabes and other cool West Coast singer-songwriter venues further solidifying my stage patter and song selection. Interesting time and place for sure.
Traveling to Denmark and England in 1974 I wound up marrying a singer-songwriter from London. I really shouldn’t have done LSD back then because I tended to ask women to marry me while while tripping! Don’t laugh, it happened twice. Ok, I think I’m over that phase now. Some say live and learn but with me it’s usually live and don’t learn! But I digress…We moved to Malibu, California and set about singing backup vocals for other artists and playing singer-songwriter showcases around L.A. Places like the Troubadour were our regular haunt. We could also see the other upcoming and already famous artists there like Jackson Browne, The Eagles and many more. Soon we got signed to a staff songwriting contract with ABC publishing. That was great because we both got a weekly check to do what we loved doing anyway. Our time to record our new song demos was 8:30 am; tough time to record but that was our allotted time. I vividly remember driving south along the coast highway with the sun’s brightness burning our eyes as we made our way towards ABC recording studios in Hollywood, wishing we could record later in the day. But we were resigned to our task and happy to be able to get into a recording studio. The cool part was as we were getting ready to enter the ABC Records studio recording artists like Steely Dan and the Crusaders were just leaving having spent the night recording their amazing records. The guitar player who was asked to play on our sessions was George Marinelli who would later be Bonnie Raitt’s long-time guitarist. We were staff writers for around two years and never had anyone have a hit with any of our songs but it was a great experience and one more chapter in the book of our musical lives.
In 1983 you moved to Kauai. What were the reasons for you to settle finally down?
After a number of years together my wife decided to go back to England and join a punk band. We still loved each other but we were coasting and it was time to let go. I formed a band with great players backing me while I performed at various showcases and venues trying to get a record deal. The band was called Allan Thomas and the Santa Monica Bay Band. The music and the band was fun but the routine was a drag trying to get record company execs to come see you play and disco was king at the time so it was just a bad time for unsigned singer-songwriters.
I decided I needed a break and went to the island of Kauai on vacation. I’ve always had this fascination with islands. I was born on Manhattan, raised in Brooklyn and Long Island and the first demo my doo-wop group ever recorded was “Island Of Love”. The die was cast. Once I got to Kauai I never left, never looked back and have been there 35 years now. I loved getting in the ocean and became a windsurfer then surfer and found it stimulating physically, mentally and spiritually. It’s immersing yourself in deep nature, it challenged you and made you tough, you had to have serious concentration or bad things would happen.
Next thing you know I’m writing songs about island life and meeting great local musicians and artists like Graham Nash – who would go on to sing on three of my albums – and Mike Shipley the famous mixer (Joni Mitchell, AC/DC, Maroon Five etc.) who would go on to mix three of my albums – and it became apparent that I’d made the right choice by following my intuition and moving to the islands. I wound up getting back into writing songs in slack key tunings thanks to the Hawaiian artists I loved and thanks to David Crosby who I tuned guitars for at a concert. Everything just came together for me in that way that you know you are in the right place at the right time even though I was 2,500 miles from L.A. and 5,000 miles from New York it didn’t matter. I was getting re-inspired and began incorporating some Hawaiian lap steel courtesy of legendary slack key and blues master Ken Emerson on my records.
Living on Kauai has led me to meet so many great artists and as a result I recorded and performed with Graham Nash, Donald Fagen of Steely Dan and Todd Rundgren. I also gave guitar lessons to 007 himself – Pierce Brosnan who is a great cat and a fan. So living in the islands was a great thing for me in many ways, and continues to be so. Nowadays I do leave for short tours in Sweden, Norway, California, Washington and west Canada, but I always come home to the place that never ceases to amaze and inspire me.
In 2005 you rent your studio to Donald Fagen of Steely Dan, for recording work on his third solo album “Morph The Cat”. I know that we have a lot of Steely Dan fans in our readership. Therefore: How did you experience the recording process and Donald Fagen back then?
I was sitting at home in my studio working on a couple of Hawaiian artists albums I was producing and I get a phone call from someone who said: “Hey, it’s Donald Fagen, I heard you have a recording studio and I’d like to come by and check it out”. I thought “yeah, someone is pulling my chain” because I was a DJ at the local community radio station for six years playing music of all kinds but I always found a way to play a track of Steely Dan, Walter Becker or Donald Fagen on my shows, so I thought someone is playing a game, but what the hell, I told him sure come on over. Sure enough he shows up at my door and it’s him in the flesh, this dude I totally respected as a writer, musician and recording artist, a person whose music had been the soundtrack of so much of my life and whose melodies and lyrics challenged me to go deeper in my own writing and craft. So the dude slithered into my home studio and I played him some stuff I had been recording so he could check out the speakers and my set up. He bopped along to the music in my swivel chair and said “OK, sounds cool, I’ll have my engineer call you”. Then the dude abruptly split.
Was he really even there?! I was in shock but the engineer called me soon after and with a very thick New York accent told me that Donald was on Kauai to record vocals for his third solo album “Morph The Cat” and the deal with another recording studio had fallen through and was I up for it? I replied in the affirmative then asked what kind of equipment would be required for the gig. He proceeded to go down the list: a new big Mac desktop computer and monitor, a U87 Neumann mic, a Distressor compressor etc., all told the total came to about $25,000! I didn’t exactly have that kind of cash lying around but not dropping a beat I told him I’d get right back to him. I made some quick phone calls and borrowed the money from a friend’s wife figuring I’d make the dough back from renting the equipment to Warner Brothers Records.
I took a huge leap of faith and it worked out big time getting to work as second engineer for Donald as he recorded vocals for four songs. It was such a great learning experience and big fun. I realized I was not that far off in what I was doing with my own fourth record production technique but it was great to be a fly on the wall as Donald double tracked lead vocals and came up with complex jazz harmony backing vocals and basically watched his style of working. He would sometimes move a bass note a few samples forward or back to make it sit better in the pocket with the kick drum, or visa versa, and would often ask the engineer and I our opinion of the slight barely discernible move. I would offer my all-knowing opinion and he would laugh and say “ok, Mr. Producer!”
To keep it fresh we took many breaks from recording and played basketball just outside the studio. I’d make coffee and fruit salad from time to time. After working six hours a day for six weeks the work was done and he asked me to play rhythm guitar and sing backup vocals at a concert he was going to play for a fundraiser for a local school. We put a band together of great Kauai musicians including the great drummer Tris Imboden of the group Chicago and had rehearsals at Todd Rundgren’s house. I’ll never forget how intense it was learning the backup vocals for “Third World Man” and Donald at one point said “Allan that’s not right!” singing the correct part to me. I was sweating and semi-terrified but I learned the part and taped everything on a mini tape recorder so I could rehearse all week in my car as I drove from place to place. The resulting concert was amazing and huge fun.
I saw Donald recently. I was performing in a local island bar/restaurant that he liked to frequent when in town. I thought I’d be a smart-ass and sing the Steely Dan song “Do It Again” – which is one of three Dan tunes still in my repertoire – so I began and all went smoothly until I got to the second verse and forgot the words! I guess I was nervous, after all it was freakin Donald Fagen! So I finished the song in a very shortened version and sang some of my own new tunes and finished my set. Afterwards Donald came up and said “nice set Allan” and I said “I’m sorry I fucked up ‘Do It Again’” and he said grinning “that song should be fucked up” and we left it at that.
Allan, you were a good friend of the great jazz musician Cannonball Adderley, you played for Barry White and hung out with Joe Walsh. Looking back, which artists have most influenced your development as a musician?
Early on it was Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, and the Drifters. Later it was Dylan, The Beatles, The Band, Ray Charles and Aretha, Brazilian guitarist Baden Powell, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley and Mose Allison. Still later Randy Newman, Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon…the list goes on.
A last question Allan: If someone looks at your oeuvre, he’ll discover a musician who has always wandered between music styles. How important is it for you as a musician to overcome genre boundaries in your career?
It’s super important to just make the music that comes to you whatever style it might wind up being without fear of being cornered into some category. Bottom line music is music not what label you attach to it. I’m so glad that I never bought into having to fit into a particular cubby hole, it never even entered my mind. It hasn’t been the easiest road perhaps but it’s my road and I’m stoked to have travelled it thus far.
Photo: Allan Thomas
This interview was first published on November 1, 2018.