Interview: Burt Bacharach

RBP: What exactly did Sony BMG’s Rob Stringer say that prompted you to try something so different with At This Time?

I met Rob in LA through a mutual friend – I think he came to see the concert by Elvis Costello and me. He was a big supporter of my music, and I thought, “I’m thinking about doing an album and Rob is a very special music guy… we don’t have many in this country like that”. He had heard some stuff that I had done, maybe from an A&M album I did that had an extended version of ‘Wives and Lovers’ that ran for seven, eight minutes, all live with a string quartet and time signatures changing all over the place. He said, “I’d be interested in an album that you might make. If you’re going to come to me and say you want to get a lot of hit songs on the radio, I’m not interested. Because no matter how good the songs are, the probability is that people will say they’re not as good as ‘I’ll Never Fall In Love Again’ or ‘Alfie’.”

And how did Dr Dre come into the picture?

Well, I had also at that time met Dr. Dre. And we had a meeting where Dre was thinking about starting his own album, which has been a long time coming. We talked about what the concept of his album might be, and he gave me about six or seven drum loops and said, See how they feel. I took them home and kind of experimented with them. Drum loops are very restrictive because they’re a concept, a four-bar thing. Same with the bass pattern. The challenge was, “What can I write melodically so I don’t sacrifice anything of myself over this core of bass and drums?” Listen, there’s all kind of drum loops and Dre’s just have a sound like nobody else’s, right? I did about three, sort of like Polaroids: ‘Please Explain’, ‘Go Ask Shakespeare’, which in its original incarnation was on a Chris Botti album in a much different form… anyway, I don’t think Dre liked them, and I may have gone way too left-field for his own personal use. But he gave me his blessing to use them, and when I said it was going really well he said, “You want some more?” I played the four “Polaroids” for Rob and he asked how I felt about continuing on. I said, “I don’t really know”. He said, “If you want to do it, I’m with you.” I called him two days later and said I wanted to do it.

Of all the people who might have been expected to “speak out” on the world’s woes, you were among the least likely.

I thought about how adventurous I could be and how much of a statement I could make lyrically – the first time I’ve ever done that. I thought it was really necessary. The more I got into this album, the more things kept falling apart in my country and in the world, and the more angry and frustrated I became. And I thought, “I can’t delegate a whole lyric to another person, I gotta be involved.”

With its references to your offspring, ‘Where Did It Go?’ is particularly poignant in its sense of loss and time’s passing.

When I sing about being twelve years old in New York, that’s me. And I’ve got these two little kids growing up. I had a hard time singing that, to be honest. It was very emotional, especially as I’m a little bit shy with my vocals. I did it in tears.

A lot of the tracks are quite fluid and diffuse, with the voices coming in late and dropping out, and with a few instrumental tracks that maintain the same melancholy mood.

The thing I liked about this was putting an album together that doesn’t have a song from top to bottom, that has vocal interjections, observations like a Greek chorus. Was I trying to do something new and groundbreaking? No, I was doing what I felt. I have to say it’s the most personal and the most passionate album I’ve ever made.

Having done Painted By Memory with you, was Elvis Costello surprised by the new methodology here?

No. I mean, we’re good friends. I called him in Istanbul this summer and said I wanted to send him ‘Who Are These People?’ He is a fierce Democrat and dislikes the Bush administration intensely. If you listen to the last two lines it’s so passionate, but on the original vocal Elvis sang, “We’re all fucked!” But Rob explained that that’s all people would talk about, rather than the substance of what’s in there. I guess the principle here is that people say, “Here’s a guy who’s written love songs all his life and never rocked the boat and never been political…”

Do you feel the signature Bacharach melodic feel is still there alongside the R&B grooves?

I hope so. I’ve heard so many slick records and slick songs, but when you peel it back it still comes to, “Do we have a tune there?” I’ve always believed that.

Is At This Time the final plinth in the critical reconstruction of Burt Bacharach, in the recognition that you are so much more than Mr. Easy Listening in Austin Powers?

Well, you know, it made me smile to hear things like it’s lounge music or easy listening. I think maybe in England or elsewhere people are more comfortable when they can put a label on it and say, “It’s R&B or it’s club music”. But I would hardly say that ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’ or ‘Walk On By’ were lounge music, you know?

What did you make of the White Stripes’ ‘Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself’?

I liked it. Most of the time when people take an adventure away from the original, as long as the original has been established it’s okay. That’s not the best-known song in my catalogue, but I liked it. I liked the band that did ‘Always Something There To Remind Me’ too – very nice. And of course Aretha’s version of ‘Say a Little Prayer’ is much better than the cut I did with Dionne.

Would it be fair to say that the whole second wave of interest in you began with Deacon Blue’s 1990 EP Four Bacharach & David Songs?

Yeah, I said that on stage when I got the GQ award, that here were these young musicians in Britain that had discovered my music – Noel Gallagher wasn’t even born when ‘Walk On By’ was a hit. But then, you guys discovered me in the first place. The first album I made, Hitmaker, was a Top 10 album in England. If it sold 5000 copies in America it was a miracle.

One of the great things about the 1997 box set The Look of Love was that it turned people on to forgotten masterpieces like Dionne’s ‘The Balance of Nature’ (1972). What are your favourite lesser-known tracks from the vaults?

I could say ‘Windows of the World’, but people know that. But that’s an admission on my part: I should have made a much better record with that song. ‘Hasbrouck Heights’ I always liked. And then another song called ‘Something Big’ that was from a movie and that Mark Lindsay sang.

© Barney Hoskyns, October 2005

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