1993 - WESU
New Haven, CT - May 9, 1993 - with Meredith Tarr
Interview mp3 (29:59)
Transcribed by Doug
MEREDITH TARR (MT): I’m going to start off just by asking you the basic boring question. How did you get started with all of this?
HAPPY RHODES (HR): Ah, let’s see…well, I knew I wanted to be in the music business in some capacity. I thought I wanted to be a recording artist because all the people I admired were. And so, I decided to—I was very shy, and I wasn’t about to take my guitar and go and play around the clubs. So I decided that my only other alternative would be to get my foot in a recording studio somewhere, under the guise of being an intern of some kind. And I did just that. I got into Cathedral Sound and asked the head engineer there if I could be his apprentice, if I could just hang around and watch him work. Because I told him that I kinda wanted to become a sound engineer at some point and maybe eventually a recording artist. And he said, he asked me why, you know, you write music, or what? And I said, yeah, I play guitar, I write songs, and so on and so on. And he said, well okay, well then your first lesson, why don’t you bring in your guitar next week, we’ll throw some songs down on tape and I’ll show you how it’s done, basically. And I said great, I’ll do that. And so I had come in, brought my guitar, sang a bit, and when it was done, he pretty much decided that I needed to be a recording artist and not an engineer.
MT: So you had music to play then, you had stuff prepared.
HR: Oh yeah, I had—at that time I had written so much music it was ridiculous.
MT: So, from that, I understand came your first two albums.
HR: Right. Although it wasn’t—it was never intended for albums. Because during the time that I was recording my music, I was doing it just to get it down on tape, and it wasn’t for the purpose of releasing it as albums.
HR: Also, if I had wanted to release them as albums, I wouldn’t have had any way of doing so anyway because I hadn’t met Kevin Bartlett at that time.
MT: Kevin is your…
HR: Kevin is the owner and president of Aural Gratification, and had been running the label at that time to distribute his own music. And he had heard my music through the same engineer at Cathedral Sound studio, and decided to ask me if I wanted to release my stuff on his label. And I accepted.
MT: Wow, that was a pretty good opportunity.
HR: Well, it was and it wasn’t. It wasn’t like, it wasn’t like it is now. It’s pretty much a label now. Then it was more a name. And there was no money involved.
HR: It was just, you know, we’ll take your music and we’ll make some cassettes, and we’ll distribute them as best we can, which at that time was about—if I sold a hundred cassettes in a year, that would have been good.
MT: You’ve come a long way.
HR: Yeah. Absolutely.
MT: Wow. So who were you listening to at this time? Who can you say, okay, these were my influences?
HR: Well, let’s see, during that time I would really overdose on a few albums. You know, we all choose a few albums that really, really hit us hard, immediately. And we played them over and over and over again. And uh, at the time I was doing that with, ah, Close To The Edge, by Yes. I was doing that with Never Forever, and The Dreaming, by Kate Bush.
MT: Hey, The Dreaming is the best album ever.
HR: That’s not my opinion, actually. I think the best album ever is Switched On Bach. I was listening to that, I was listening to, I was actually listening—well, Queen, of course. I O.D'd on that. I knew every Queen tune backwards and forwards. I listened to Pink Floyd. But at that time it was mostly Yes, and Kate Bush, and Queen. I didn’t own any Peter Gabriel albums; I didn’t know anything about Genesis at the time. I knew a lot about David Bowie, but I didn’t personally own all--any of his albums. My brothers owned his albums.
MT: So you--but you’d heard it that way.
HR: Yeah, I got to hear a lot of music from my brothers thankfully.
MT: Uh-hmm. As you’ve gone on your records, obviously they’ve evolved, they’ve matured; you’ve brought in more instrumentation. Was the impetus for that just because [the instrumentation] was there, or because you said, “oh, well, I think I’ll try something else now”, or were you listening to different things?
HR: Well, something like that is a natural progression. Some artists don’t take that direction. Some artists like a folk sound, other artists like a garage type sound, which—I mean that’s just a term I use, to describe the kick-snare strumming guitar sound.
HR: The very simple basic rock sound. I was always heading down the path of electronics, and orchestration, and lots of instrumentation, and kind-of polished production, I guess because of Yes and Queen. So that was a natural progression for me. I started out simply because that’s all I had. It was inevitable that I would eventually obtain a lot of other instruments and broaden my horizons.
MT: Thematically, I think you’ve changed as well, too. Last night I listened to Equipoise—which is your new album—and then I listened to Rhodes 1, which was the first one. And during that I was really struck by how you’re coming at things from a different angle.
HR: Yeah. Definitely. I was young when I was writing the stuff that appears on Rhodes 1, Rhodes 2, and really Rearmament and Ecto as well. And that’s not a defense or justification, it’s just a fact. I was very young, and I was an alienated young person, and obviously that’s going to be reflected in the music, at the time. So I can’t identify with it anymore, necessarily, but I definitely stand behind it; I definitely recognize it for what it was. And again, the content is also a natural progression, it’s inevitable, you know. The more you learn, the more you experience, the more broad your horizons become.
MT: You seem to have moved from the inner to the outer. Where some songs on Equipoise you’re talking about, in Save Our Souls, the irony of, “here we are on this planet that has all these problems, yet we’re looking out into space for our saviors”. On Warpaint, your fifth album, starts off with the words, “We’re waking up, yes, it’s good.” You’re getting kind of, uh, I hate the word, but kind of a political bent to things?
HR: Not anymore so than Warpaint, I think. On Warpaint, I meant what I said when I wrote Waking Up. And that was specifically referring to all the people in the world who were doing amazing things to save human beings, to save animals, to save the environment. People are taking enormous leaps and bounds to accomplish things that seem unaccomplishable by single human beings. Yet they’re out there, doing it. And I’m very impressed by these human beings. I don’t consider myself to be one of them, and so I’m in awe of them. And I’m glad they’re here, and they’re all around us.
HR: On other songs, on Warpaint, like To Live In Your World—that’s about the death penalty—there’s Murder, there’s all kind of stuff that I think has a political bent on that album. And I thought Equipoise was a little lighter in political content, if you want the truth. What was my political song on Equipoise? Do you think I Say is, or Save Our Souls is political?
MT: Save Our Souls and, in a way, Runners, I think. That’s the one that seems to me—of course, you could also say Play the Game, which kind of tackles Feminism--but Runners, talking about toxic dumps and things that are coming to get you, gonna steal my heartbeat, even the air you breathe can kill you, if you listen to right news reports.
HR: Well, the thing is, with Runners, it’s that, my point is not, “the world is going down the tubes, look at everything that’s happening to our environment.” My point is we’re all too—too damned afraid of dying, and it’s gotta stop. It’s tongue-in-cheek.
MT: Ah, it *is* tongue in cheek.
HR: Yes it is. I’m very tired of all the reports of the carcinogens and what causes this, and what causes that. And everybody really really believes it and eats it up. And we all immediately go out and get the first product that seems like it’s going to cure us of that.
MT: So you weren’t the first person out there buying oat bran?
HR: Oh, I’m not saying that. I put myself right in line with everyone else.
HR: Definitely. It’s really hard, it’s a very hard struggle for me. I don’t like it, and so on a daily basis, I really try and not fall into a certain set of beliefs, that we tend to do, but it’s really hard. [laughs]
MT: Yeah! Everyone is so influenced by everything around them.
MT: Another thing that becomes quite obvious when listening to any one of your albums is these little science fiction themes that keep popping up. Aliens, and monsters, and that sort of thing. I can only assume from that that you are an SF fan, to a degree?
HR: A what fan?
HR: Oh. I usually go the full Sci-Fi myself. [laughs]
MT: Oh! [laughs] Well, [when I think] Sci-Fi, I think The Cockroach That Ate Cincinnati. [Laughs again]
HR: I am a big science-fiction fan. I should rephrase that…I’m probably a medium science-fiction fan, only in that I’m not ardent about it.
MT: You don’t go to the conventions and dress up?
HR: Exactly. Right. I mean, you know, people sometimes ask me if I know this comic book or this really cult-type of underground stuff. Hardcore, science-fiction fan type things. No, I’m nowheres near like that.
MT: I mean, who do you read?
HR: I don’t tend to read anyone in particular. I read whatever. I’m really trying to catch up on a lot of classical science-fiction.
MT: Do you have any that you consider your favorites, or do you just read whatever looks interesting?
HR: Hmmm…basically I read whatever looks interesting. I can’t…I’m trying to think if there’s anything in particular that…I really really liked the Dune series. I’m not even through it yet. I think they’re really…some of the best written, most tastefully written science-fiction that I’ve ever read. And I’m not WELL-read. And I tell that to everyone, because the minute I say, “Oh I love science-fiction, I love to read science-fiction,” everybody starts rattling off, “well of course, you know…have you read blah-blah-blah by blah-blah?” And I’m standing there, going “Uh, no.” I sound like an idiot.
MT: Do you like vampires?
HR: Um, the ones I know personally are nice.
MT: [laughs] I ask that because of the two songs on Equipoise, He Will Come, and The Flight, which I believe cannot be separated. I think, like, there would be some earthquake somewhere.
HR: I think so. I think a person would definitely implode if they tried.
MT: I always play them together. How did you come to do that? Did you just…was there a specific story, or was there a dream you had, or?
HR: Well, no. It’s really strange, but I do love vampire stories. I’ve always loved vampire movies…really good ones. I hate corny ones. I remember when I was younger and I saw Salem’s Lot for the first time and I thought that was amazing. I needed more, immediately. I like vampire stories, all kinds of vampire stories. And the funny thing is that, the big movie this past December, was Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I’ve never read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, never knew what the story was, had seen one version of Nosferatu, but didn’t really retain much of it.
HR: A couple years ago, a year and a half, maybe two years ago, right around the time when I was playing out live, for the Warpaint album, I wrote He Will Come and The Flight.
MT: You performed those live.
HR: Right. I thought I was making this story up. Used the name Gabrielle, just purely because I liked the name. I made up, well, gee, what would be a really romantic, incredible scenario, so I made it up. Then I saw Bram Stoker’s Dracula, like a year later, and found out that Bram Stoker is this author who wrote this story before I ever thought of it. Basically [it was] the same story. And I was pretty bummed, needless to say. I left the theater and I said, “Damn, I thought I was really original here.” [laughs]
MT: [laughter] Oh, but great minds think alike, don’t you know.
HR: Well, thanks. Then they used Annie Lennox’s song on the end of the movie and I said, “Oh shit, man.” I was so envious of that.
MT: [laughs] Well maybe some other great vampire movie will come out and become a classic and they’ll use your music at the end of it.
HR: I hope and pray.
MT: [laughs] A lot of your earlier songs seem to be not more, well maybe more straight-forward. You can listen to it and say, “OK, I can see what’s going on,” and I either identify with it or I don’t. But on Equipoise there a couple songs that seem to be escaping people.
MT: And one of them is Out Like A Lamb, which is by far my favorite song on the album. I just listen to it over and over and over.
MT: For many different reasons. One of them is, every time I listen to it I just try to figure out, “God, what is this song about?” Would you care to shed any light on that?
HR: Yeah, it’s definitely about my father. Which is no unique theme. A lot of people write songs about their relatives, usually after they’ve passed on. Which my father did, and I thought it was a particular interesting way that he died. It was very quiet, and I thought that was really interesting because I remembered him—I hadn’t really—I left my father when I was young. I was eleven years old in fact when I stopped living with my father. And I hadn’t really seen him. I saw him probably once after that, when I was an adult. My memories of him were that of a really intelligent, vivacious type of humorous, funny man. I always loved him a lot, and I always had this pride about my father. His life kind of—he kind of, like, slipped out without telling anybody. He got very very ill, and ah, he stopped being gregarious, he stopped doing things with his life, he became a little more quiet, and he died.
HR: These are just the perceptions of a child, you know? It’s not necessarily how he really was, or how other people saw him. But because I remember him, as a little girl, I remember him as being this larger-than-life savior, this man who was just like a burning fire. I was always so glad and proud to be around him. It was very strange to me that when he died he did it very quietly, and nobody—it was like he had never been here at all. It was just a very strange thing, and I thought it was a strange choice, and so I sang about it.
MT: Was it hard to write?
HR: I don’t think so. It wasn’t hard to write, and in fact I never planned on writing a song necessarily about my father, about my father’s death. In fact it didn’t come right when he died. It came very very late after, I mean more than a year passed. And, because I write the music first, I don’t start out with lyrics, I wrote the music for Out Like a Lamb, and I listened to it, and I immediately knew that—started singing to it. He’ll call me when he’s back in town, in fact that was the first line I sang.
HR: Yeah. So that’s when I knew—oh well okay, I guess this one is about my father. [laughs]
MT: [laughs] And the rest of it just followed?
MT: Yeah. There’s a bagpipe in it.
HR: Right. There’s a bagpipe at the end of it.
MT: Yeah, and it goes on at the end. Is that kind of—
HR: Well actually the bagpipe within the song is a guitar. That’s Kevin’s crafty guitar work there.
MT: Uh-huh. Clever.
HR: And the real bagpipe is only at the end of the song.
MT: Right. It’s definitely a really neat touch, especially knowing now what the song is about. It seems to make perfect sense.
HR: Well, to clarify that further, my father was a bagpipe freak. He loved bagpipe music. He was the one who got me so—I’m sure he is the reason I’m so musical. He had the album, Switched on Bach. And he used to play music constantly. It was very important to him. He wasn’t musical though. He was a painter, but he couldn’t—he wasn’t a musician, but he loved listening to it. And so, that’s what got me going, I’m sure.
MT: Yeah, so he was a painter—now you paint, right? You’ve done, let’s see…you have painting on four of your album covers? Well, three and a half. [laughs] And they’re all about—they’re all monsters…
HR: Not all my paintings are, but…
MT: The ones you chose for your album covers have all been monsters. Why is that? Aren’t you afraid someone’s going to look at your CD in Tower [Records] and say, “oh, this must be some death metal…” and then put it back.
HR: People do that all the time. But you know, to begin with, I’m not the type of artist—I’m not going to plaster a picture of me with my cleavage hanging out, on the cover, just so that somebody who’s never heard of me before can pick up the album and go, “Whoa, hey, I want to get this!” You know?
MT: [laughs] Yeah.
HR: I think, really, the people who’ve heard my music, who LIKE it, who purposefully go into a store seeking a Happy Rhodes album, you know, I don’t think they’re going to go, “Oh, Heavy Metal” and then put it back.
MT: That’s true. That is true.
HR: I have a lot of weird, different reactions to the covers. First I have to say that I never planned on--the first four albums, the covers were done out of necessity more than artistic direction. It was because—again, I never created these to be albums. But when it came time that I had to do some kind of presentation, because people were going to be paying money for it, I said, “Well, I have this painting, I’ll just put that on the front.” It kind of stuck, and I kinda liked it. I mean, it’s the kind of stuff I would wanna look at.
HR: So that’s…that’s my only motivation right there. But then Warpaint came along, and then Equipoise and…
MT: Warpaint is just a picture of you.
MT: But Equipoise you’ve gone—well, half back to monsters. Half of you and half of this interesting, green, monster-thing. [laughs]
HR: That’s a good description. [laughs]
MT: Now Equipoise itself means “state of balance”. And you have these neat little scales on the back [of the CD case]. I can guess that the half and half ness of this cover here has something to do with that.
HR: Well yeah, that has everything to do with it. I feel like I can explain this to you, but I have the feeling you know this already so [laughter] it's a little weird. I know you know this. Do you want me to go into it?
MT: People of central Connecticut don’t know it. In a nutshell, if you don’t want to.
HR: Well, no, I feel it’s really important that people of central Connecticut know this.
HR: During the time that I was writing the music for the album—I go through phases in life, just like everybody, where you wake up one morning and you have a revelation. All of a sudden you stop acting a certain way. You decide, “Ah, I don’t want to be like that anymore. I want to be more like this.” And you do. It never seems quite that plain. It’s usually more gradual. People don’t really notice the change, but we all change.
HR: Well, during the making of the album, or the writing of the album, anyway, I was having a hard time. I was struggling with one issue in my life, which was the fact that I cared a lot more about animals than I did about human beings. It’s something that animal rights activists get accused of all the time, and it had always angered me, because people never care enough about animals, or plant life, or anything to begin with. And to think that once you do start caring, if someone does start caring about it, you get accused about not giving a damn about humans, you know. And most people say, “we have starving people in the world, how dare you worry about animals when you should be worrying about people.” It’s an arrogant thing to say. As far as I’m concerned life is life, there’s no differentiation.
HR: So, the only problem is that, I knew for me, personally, that it just might be true that I cared a little bit more about animals. Maybe I felt a little safer with animals than I do with people. The death of a human being would never quite stir me so much, or hurt me so much physically, as the death of an animal. I needed to figure that out. So, I kinda really thought about it a lot. I took a long, hard look at myself, and I decided that the reason I can be so cold toward human life is because I am human life. I understand it. There are a lot of negative, dark things about me that exist in everyone. And I’m very judgmental of myself, I’m very critical of myself. Therefore, I’m very judgmental and critical of everyone else.
HR: Animals, on the other hand, I cannot compare myself to. They’re completely individual. Of their own species, I don’t understand a damn thing about them. That makes me able to love them more. Because I don’t understand them I consider them to be innocent. You know, it’s kind of screwed up, but that’s the way it is. So finally I decided, well, if I want to care as much about human beings as I do about animals, I have to start accepting myself more. So I started working on changing my habits and not being so judgmental of myself. Start accepting the darker things in myself. Facing them and not repressing them, not denying them. And then it made it so much easier for me to embrace other human beings who display the same characteristics. I don’t know if that makes sense.
MT: It makes sense to me.
MT: You know, I can’t speak for anyone else, but it makes perfect sense to me.
HR: Well you can. It might not be valid, but…I do it all the time.
MT: Okay, I proclaim that explanation to have made sense.
HR: Ok, and it really works for me. It really—I mean, it changed my life. I’m not 100% there, but it’s definitely something I’m striving for.
MT: I think that’s important, to be able to have an understanding of one’s self on that sort-of level. I know I certainly am not there.
HR: I don’t think any of us are…it’s a life-long process.
MT: Yeah. There is one song on Equipoise, called Closer, which may or may not tie into this.
HR: Well, it does, in an obtuse kind of way.
MT: [laughs] Obtuse!
HR: Which is my favorite way. The deal with Closer is that, I come from a background of rejection. When you’re a child, if you’re rejected constantly—and I was more rejected by peers than anything, not parents or adults, but my peers—and my peers were my social structure, where my family was my family. I was never accepted by my peers. I was taunted, and I was tortured. It kind of made my life a living hell. I also did not have a good time with a step-parent, and that existence tortured me as a child also. It was kind of chaotic, and I was very unhappy, very unsafe. A lot of people go through childhoods like that. A lot of people go through childhoods that are horrible and worse than that. I’m really sorry about it, but it’s the reality of the situation.
HR: However, we all grow older, and the older you get, the more you start understanding about why certain things had happened. But also when you get older you understand that it’s okay to be pissed off about it. Because when you’re a kid, you don’t feel like you have a right to be angry. You don’t even understand what’s happening, let alone feel angry about it. I was really angry about a lot of the things that had happened to me. I was very angry at a lot of the people that had done them. Even though I understand their actions—you know, we can understand until we’re blue in the face—it doesn’t mean you can’t feel angry at the same time. So, I got angry and I wrote the song.
MT: There’s one line in Closer that I wonder…”Every word volunteered for my army.” Who’s your army?
HR: My army would be me. Let’s really get obtuse now. It’s difficult, sometimes, explaining why I write certain things, because sometimes it comes and that’s it. There’s—if I try to elaborate on it, it comes out sounding more confusing than before. But I’ll try on this one.
HR: The phrase prior to it is, All the fears of the babes lay upon me. The two phrases go together. All the fears of the babes lay upon me means all the taunting that I received from other children was coming out of a place of fear. Because even children who liked me would taunt me out of fear of rejection from the others. So everybody would join in.
HR: That’s why I say every word, meaning everything they called me, volunteered for my army. Every word that they threw at me just, kind of, made me stronger for the future.
MT: You’ve really come a long way, in many ways, from just handing your tapes out, to now you can walk into many major music chains and pick up your albums.
MT: All with very little radio airplay.
HR: Not so much now. [garbled]the Hard Report, which means that a lot of radio stations are playing both album cuts and the main cut…the single.
MT: Great, that’s great.
MT: The road to this has been…
MT: Long. [laughs] I mean, your first album came out in 1986. Has that—I mean, how has that been for you? Have you been discouraged at any time, or have you—are you just incredibly patient?
HR: Well that’s a really good question. When I was 18 years old and just started recording, if anybody had said to me—let me rephrase this. If I were 19 when I was actually releasing music, if anybody had said to me that I wouldn’t get to this point until I was 27 years old, it would have seemed like forever. I would have said, “oh, I’ll kill myself. This is too long, I can’t wait that long.” Even now I’m not massively famous. I don’t know, a funny thing happens, you know? It’s sort-of like, you live your life, and there’s some point where you realize that there’s more to life than just one single thing that interests you. Mine being music, and releasing albums.
HR: My life is a bunch of things. Luckily that makes it easy to be very patient. I think probably it’s that way with e veryone. Well, maybe not everyone. [laughs] I thought about that, and I’m thinking, “No, there are probably a lot of impatient people out there who would like to be famous RIGHT NOW, thank you very much.”
HR: I don’t know why it is with me. I know that when I was younger I definitely wanted it very quickly. But I also have a lot of trust in my own creation, in what’s going on. I know that I wouldn’t have been able to handle if it happened quickly. This way is a lot better for me. If it doesn’t get any bigger than this, that would be okay with me, because I’m very very gratified by what I’m doing.