Pete and Rachel interview in L.A. City Beat
brianinatlanta2001 at yahoo.com
Thu Mar 29 06:07:26 CDT 2007
Pete Townshend, Rachel Fuller, and friends make music live online for the whole wide world
~ By STEVE APPLEFORD ~
Your British rock star will learn some important lessons on the American highway. For Pete Townshend of the Who and girlfriend Rachel Fuller, one revelation came in the form of tea cups. Not the irritatingly dainty sets one finds in a typical four-star hotel suite, but great big mugs of stained porcelain and clay, far more appropriate for splashing in hearty pints of precious English breakfast tea each day. Townshend and Fuller must have these, and they’ve learned to travel with their own.
“In the old days, when I used to tour, musicians in L.A. would say, ‘I know a store where you can get English PG Tips tea,’” says Townshend. “And I would think, You fucking tosser! Who gives a fuck? Now I have it FedEx’d in.”
Townshend seems comfortable enough at the moment, sipping from a mug decorated with a dog’s face in his hotel suite overlooking Austin, Texas. He appears exceptionally fit, elegant, and rugged at 61 in a snug gray sweater, his beard trimmed close. Curled up beside him on the couch is Fuller, another singer and arranger known for songs both wisecracking and delicate, with a special place in her repertoire for the Eels’ “It’s a Motherfucker.” She’s having a smoke before beginning a rehearsal on electric piano.
They met back in 1996 at a London rehearsal studio, where Townshend was working up another reunion tour with the Who, and she was playing piano in the next room. They’re spending about 10 days in Austin, not only for the South by Southwest music festival but also using the Texas capital city as a base for nearby stops on the current tour by the Who, which has recently released Endless Wire, its first album since 1982’s It’s Hard.
“It’s only recently that I’ve ascribed to the idea that I don’t have to really rough it on the road,” says Townshend with a smile. “I want to do a long tour so that I get as many people aware of the new record as possible – not in order to sell millions, but just so they at least listen to it. However, that has the unfortunate result of earning me loads and loads of money that I don’t really want. So I give it back to the American nation in the form of pollution and jet charter fees.”
Along the way, he has devoted much of his time to an ongoing project of great importance to him and Fuller: a series of intimate live shows called “In the Attic.” From tiny clubs in cities across the U.S. and Europe, the couple has been webcasting live as the performances unfold in real time, with Fuller the animated host and Townshend the superstar sideman, and various guests playing original songs and stirring Who covers.
In early March, that roadshow returned to the Hotel Café in Hollywood, opening with a short, manic appearance by Tenacious D and also including an emotional set by Ben Harper, who brought his own string section. A recent gig at Joe’s Pub in New York included Lou Reed and J Mascis, and other “Attic” nights have featured the Raconteurs, Martha Wainwright, and the Flaming Lips. And the Who’s guitarist-composer is always there to assist.
At that Hotel Café show, as singer-songwriter Joe Purdy and his father prepared to perform, the rock legend reached up to help like any good roadie. “Hey, dad,” Purdy said, half-joking, half-disbelieving, “Pete Townshend is fixing your microphone.”
The “Attic” shows are designed to be spontaneous and gently chaotic. “We don’t rehearse it,” says Fuller. “You don’t get to see a polished performance. The artists have such a great time. There hasn’t been one that’s said, ‘God, that was fucking awful … .’”
Mascis played a raging acoustic guitar through a fuzzbox, and the Flaming Lips reworked “Baba O’Riley” into an otherwordly sound. “They come in really enthusiastically and had Pete play a shitty plastic thing that cost 50 cents on eBay,” says Fuller. “It had six strings on it. ‘We’re going to do “Baba O’Riley,” and all you have to do, Pete, is – if you strum on this, it makes a crazy noise.’” (Many of these performances are available from iTunes individually or collected as an album called Attic Jams.)
None of these shows in little clubs is really about a tiny gang of musicians crowded into a venue; they’re focused on broadcasting live across the globe. Townshend is back in arenas and amphitheaters with the Who, a band that’s played most of the notorious rock festivals: Woodstock, Monterey Pop, the Isle of Wight (while managing to miss the debacle of Altamont), Live Aid, and more. But he and Fuller imagine an even larger audience.
“The ‘Attic’ thing is live, live, live, live, live,” says Townshend. “When you’re a performer, and you’re working with an audience, you’re squaring the circle, you’re finalizing the contract. The question, particularly from the money guys – the suits – is, ‘Why would you bother?’ What they want is millions of hits [online] over a period of time and to build up their stats, so they all can buy their own Learjets and yachts in Cannes or whatever it is they fucking do.”
The “Attic” jams and cybercasts are an unanticipated realization of an idea Townshend first developed for an aborted Who album called Lifehouse. It was to be another rock opera like Tommy, and would tell of a society so isolated from its polluted environment that people are connected only through a “Grid” of electronics and life support. His vision was more Matrix than MySpace utopia, representing yet another brand of ominous authority to escape. (“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss … .”) Some of those Lifehouse songs – “Behind Blues Eyes,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and more – ended up on 1971’s Who’s Next and elsewhere.
Townshend fully grasped the musical potential of the Internet thanks to Fuller, who began blogging and offering music on her own website after feeling that her label botched the U.K. release of her 2004 album, Cigarettes and Housework. Townshend eventually began blogging on his own site (Petetownshend-whohe.blogspot.com), about himself, the Who, his injuries, his ideas.
A listen to the often understated new Who album suggests Townshend was already in an acoustic mood. “A Man in a Purple Dress” and many other tracks are spare, contemplative tunes. But the musician insists it was the “Attic” project that helped him find a path to writing the first album of new Who material in 24 years.
“I was really struggling, and have been for a long, long time, producing material for the Who. And it’s partly from the rigidity of my relationship with [singer] Roger [Daltrey],” says Townshend. “It’s the fact that we hardly communicate. And we’d never really needed to, because the creative process was so much in my hands, and the interpretive process was so much in the hands of the group. Which just worked by the most miraculous chaotic chemistry.”
Meanwhile, he had turned his energies toward the Internet and working up material for “In the Attic.” One song destined for Endless Wire, “You Stand by Me,” began there and was written on the show, as Townshend scribbled some lyrics between numbers before creating the music live right in front of his web audience. Someone was bound to hear it.
“What then actually happened is Roger spotted this stuff and fed back to me, ‘Hey, I love this!’ And I was taken by surprise. Really?”
Three decades after Lifehouse, Townshend and Daltrey were finally plugged into The Grid.
-Brian in Atlanta
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