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Willie Nile

A Conversation with Willie Nile (continued)

PM: I want to talk about Frankie Lee, because I don't know anything about him, and he's a major player on this disc.

WN: He's a great songwriter.

PM: Yeah. Now, what's your process together?

WN: Frankie and I co-wrote seven or eight of the fourteen songs: "Welcome to My Head," "Asking Annie Out," "Game of Fools," "Bo Diddley," "Faded Flower," "When One Stands," "On Some Rainy Day"--those were all co-writes. And I wrote some myself right here. "Back Home," "Best Friends Money Can Buy," "Whole World With You," "Cell Phones Ring in the Pockets of the Dead," "Lonesome Dark-Eyed Beauty," and "Streets of New York," I wrote those.

PM: That is a bad ass bunch of songs, my man.

WN: I'm thrilled about it. I just couldn't wait, and it feels so good to get it out there sounding like it does. And Frankie--well, like with "Bo Diddley in Washington Square," we were hanging out playing guitars one night. And Frank is going to be doing some gigs with me. He's coming down to South By Southwest. He's going to play drums and sing. He was a drummer initially, and he played with Robert Gordon--

PM: Wow.

WN: --played drums years ago, for a spell. And he's a great songwriter and singer. We write all the time. And we'll have an idea, and we'll just sit down and hash it out. When we wrote "Bo Diddley," we were talking one night. We were hanging out playing guitars. And I said to him, "You know, I saw Bo Diddley in Washington Square Park." And he said, "So did I."

PM: [laughs] Wow.

WN: So we both saw him. He stays in a hotel near the square when he's in town.

PM: Really?

WN: He was just there the other day, yeah. And we wrote that song just to honor Bo, put him right in the chorus.

PM: Right.

WN: And so our process is we'll have an idea, and we'll just flesh it out. We both write music and lyrics.

PM: Are you the kind of guys that sit there until it's done, or like if it takes three or four, whatever it takes, you just--

WN: It's both. We'll usually have one really good session with it, and then if it's not done, I'll finish it, or we'll do it over the phone. "When One Stands," there's an example of a song that I called Frank up one night, and I said, "If Bob Marley was alive today, and he was going to play Wembley Stadium, what would he write? Let's write a Bob Marley song."

PM: Wow.

WN: And so Frank called me back up later. I had an idea, so we talked about it. By the next day, it was done. We had "When One Stands." It happens every which way. The piano, guitar, words, idea. "I have an idea, let's write this kind of song," and bang, there it was.

PM: And you guys are friends forever, or--

WN: Well, let's see. He played drums with me. I think it was '92, I met Frank--'91 or '92. I was doing some dates--I was touring, opening up for Ringo Starr and the All Starr Band. And Frankie was playing drums with me for part of that. And that's where we met, and we became good friends. Well, he's my best friend, and he's a dear guy. And we have a ball writing. We just finished a song--let's see, Sunday I finished it. We got together. There was a song in the air, we worked on it, and I finished it on Saturday and Sunday on the bus.

PM: It's just the most fun of the whole process, isn't it--

WN: That's the most fun. That is the most fun. I mean, I love recording. I wish I had more time.

PM: And people think the most fun must be playing out--"Oh, it must be playing out." It's like, "No, not really."

WN: No, it's not.

PM: "It's about writing a song." [laughs]

WN: You're definitely right. Frank, that's exactly right. That's the most fun. You come up with some idea, and you work on it, and then bang, there it is! That's the most fun of the whole process. And I think second is recording it. All of a sudden you're creating it and it's sounding great--and then playing live. But writing it, yeah, I'm with you 100 percent on that.

PM: And the amazing thing about your records is that everybody's got so much experience and the rhythm section are both producers--well, everybody is a producer in that crowd.

WN: Right, Andy is, too. I mean, he's actually producing Ian Hunter right now, as we speak.

PM: There you go.

WN: The album that Ian made called Rant, Andy produced that. I think Rich got a co-production credit, and mixed it. But all three guys are great producers.

PM: It's a high IQ bunch.

WN: Having a band like that, somebody knows how it's done, and a sense of feel.

PM: Personality-wise, how does it lay out? I get a sense, talking to you, of your personality. But what are Brad and Rich like? Who's loud and who's quiet, and who's refined?

WN: Brad is quiet, a steady, solid rock. And Rich is more animated. He's a drummer. But those guys were in Marry Me Jane together, a band, so they've played together over the years. And they just know each other's--it's like when you're a kid and you're playing catch with old baseball gloves and they're all broken in. It's like that, like you're in some sandlot and you're just throwing the ball around, hitting the ball around. They know each other's stuff inside out. And so does Andy. Andy has played with them before. We haven't played out live in a while, the four of us. We've got a show on the 27th of this month in New York, a CD release thing.

PM: At the Mercury Lounge.

WN: Yeah, the whole band. And Jimmy Vivino is going to play with us, from Conan O'Brien's show, the guitar player. It's going to be stompin'. So he'll play guitar and keyboards. It's going to be a lot of fun. I can't wait. That's going to be fun.

PM: I might try to get up there for that. We've been renting this loft in Soho. I might have to get up there for that one.

WN: Well, that show is going to be--you probably should do the Bowery Ballroom, because that's going to be a circus, I think. But we're going to be at Mercury Lounge, and it's hard enough to get everybody together on the date, and we got that, so we're rolling with it. But I think it'll be a lot of fun.

So Brad is quiet. Everybody has opinions and suggestions, but everybody is real relaxed and easy about it. And Andy is in between the two of them. He can be animated, he can be... But the thing is, what we have in common, the four of us, is love and appreciation for a similar kind of a music, from the Beatles and Stones to The Clash--

PM: Right.

WN: --and we speak a similar language. Like when I brought in "When One Stands" and played it for them, Rich said, "Well, you know, white guys doing reggae, I mean, I don't know." He said, "If we do it like The Clash, maybe."

PM: Right.

WN: And I said, "Yeah, that sounds good to me."

PM: That's a good call.

WN: And then we did it, and everybody played great. When we cut "Cell Phones Ringing in the Pockets of the Dead," I'd just written it. And we went in, the guys said, "We got to cut this." I played it live once at Irving Plaza. I played it out acoustically, and I was opening up for somebody with Jimmy Vivino. And the audience--I never saw expressions on faces like that. People were saying, "Who are you?" We went in, and we just cut it in a couple hours, set up and got sounds, and just a few passes, and we had it.

PM: What a song.

WN: And the same thing with "Police on My Back," when we recorded that, it was for another project. A writer friend of mine was looking to do a Sandinista tribute record.

PM: Who was that?

WN: Jimmy Guterman. When you see the credits for the album, which I'm about to send you, you'll see in the credits there's an address to find out about it. [http://sandinista.guterman.com]

PM: Okay.

WN: So we cut it. And we wanted just to cut it for that, but it came out so good, it was so much fun, and we just knocked it off--same thing. Brad had been traveling with Martha for a long time, and we just came in, bang, like we'd never left. We've never been apart, all of us.

PM: Wow.

WN: Of course, Andy is off with Mellencamp, and Brad is off here. And Rich plays with the Fab Faux. I don't know if you've heard of that band.

PM: I don't know them.

WN: It's become a real thing. And hearing that Beatle music played live so well--

PM: I love that. I can't get enough of that.

WN: Anybody who goes to see it becomes so hooked. And now they're flying all over the country playing. It's really good. It's Will Lee, Letterman's bass player, Jimmy Vivino on guitar, Rich Pagano on drums, and Jack Petruzzelli. He plays with Joan Osborne, plays with a lot of people. And Frank Agnello on guitar. They all sing like hell. So they'll do "Because" by the Beatles, and you'll just sit there and you'll hear this a capella song.

PM: [laughs]

WN: They do "The Walrus." They even do Sgt. Peppers, the backward stuff.

PM: Really?

WN: It's like watching great musicians play, because they don't dress up and pretend like they're the Beatles, none of that. They just say, "We love this music. We're glad you do, too. And here's another one." And to hear that stuff, to hear "And Your Bird Can Sing," played like that--

PM: Ahh, yeah, with the great guitars.

WN: Oh, great guitars! Anyway, Rich is way busy with that. So when we cut "Police on My Back," everybody's instincts were right the same. We all love the same things about the music we love. And it was no problem to knock that off. It was kind of The Clash meet The Who. And I thought, "Listening to that is so much fun, I got to put this on the record." So I took a couple songs off, I took three things off and put that on.

PM: Really? [laughs]

WN: Yep. I put that and "Cell Phones" on, there at the end of the project. But the band is terrific, and I'm lucky that they're such great players and such good guys.   continue

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