Far Out Meets: Famed composer and record producer Stephen Emmer
“Younger readers, or potential younger readers, probably won’t remember the beginnings of social media,” Stephen Emmer says. “At the time, there was MySpace. MySpace allowed artists to put up their demos. So, I put up some stuff I was working on, I thought nothing of it, and six months later I got a phone call. The man says,’I’m Joe D’Ambrosio’. He sounded like he was something out of The Sopranos, it was this Italian type voice. He said he had a client who was interested in my work, and I might have heard of him. The client was Tony Visconti”.
Emmer chuckles knowingly, confident that a music journalist is knowledgeable enough to recognise the name. “Tony is a music encyclopedia,” Emmer laughs.”When I told the men on the phone that I couldn’t afford the services, I was told ‘at this stage of his career, Tony Visconti is not in it for the money’. So, I flew over to New York. I was told that when he was mixing, that I shouldn’t be there. That was the time to go shopping. But of course, as I was going to leave, Tony told me that we would mix together. It’s not just Bolan and T-Rex. He’s worked with Ralph McTell, Prefab Sprout and Gentle Giant too. One of my tracks reminded him of Low with Davie Bowie. And another time, he asked me what kind of bass I wanted?I said, like everyone who’d listened to rock, I wanted Paul McCartney. Tony said he’d worked with Sir Paul in Lagos. Did you know he worked on Band On The Run? So, Tony had assimilated what Paul McCartney plays on bass. Tony also told me about the album he’d just finished with Morrissey, that they’d put the crackled, almost Marc Bolan, voice on a track. While I was with Tony, he got a phone call from John Frusciante from Chili Peppers. He wanted to ask if he could help get that T-Rex guitar, from a production side of things. ‘I don’t really do that anymore’ Tony said”.
Emmer’s not here to spill the beans on Bowie/Bolan producer Tony Visconti, as there are enough stories to be heard on his latest neo-classical project. “When people describe my work as conceptual, it’s almost as if they think I’m writing a Yes album,” Emmer replies. “Tales from Topographic Oceans. I’m from the New Wave days! I took this as a challenge to strip everything back. I was writing for a string quartet, very basic. Much as it was like hundreds of years ago. But I wanted to bring a bit of oomph into the music. There’s not a lot of oomph in classical music that I hear. An artist should be recognised for what they write, like Miles Davis. When he plays the trumpet, you know it’s him”.
The Yes comparison is a valid one. Maison Melody is laced with the resonant wisdom that shimmers through the startling Wondrous Stories. Much like Rick Wakeman, Emmer melds texture and tempo through an instrument best known for spurious virtuosity. He played keyboards with The Lotus Eaters, a band fronted by a singer whose voice echoed with Jon Anderson type resonance. “The singer, Peter Coyle, loved Jon Anderson and Peter Gabriel,” Emmer admits. “That octave jump Peter does can be fixed these days, by auto-tune. These were guys from Liverpool and I knew Michael Dempsey, who played with The Cure and The Associates. The Associates had a singer called Billy Mackenzie. Billy passed away at a very young age. He recorded a duet with Annie Lennox that was not released. It was such a bold recording. It’s my plan to finish an album for Billy. It will be sort of a posthumous Nick Drake thing. Midge Ure said Billy was a real singer. U2’s Bono said something like that too. Bono said that at the time when U2 and other bands were enjoying success, none of them could really sing. But Billy, Bono said, Billy could really sing. Since he said that, I wonder if Bono would sing on the album?”
The stories don’t stop there. Emmer is well versed in The Beatles lore and even managed to collaborate with two members of the Lennon family. “The presses and fans still have a go at Yoko,” Emmer sighs. “I read a lot of Beatle material, and they never mention that Paul and Yoko had an artistic relationship. It was through John Cage and people like that. It was on an album I did with Tony Visconti, where I got to work with Yoko. I felt privileged working besides Tony, but he felt privileged working with people like Allen Ginsberg and Richard Burton on that album. I had footage of Yoko speaking what was like a nursery rhyme. It was a capella: ‘snow is falling’. Yoko contacted another Japanese New York artist, Kazu Makino from Blond Redhead, to collaborate on the track. Sung as a nursery rhyme, it has a sinister feel to it. I also know Julian Lennon. He seems to have lost interest in music, moved into other areas. He has The White Feather Foundation. Do you know that story? John Lennon told Julian if anything should happen to him, he would come to him as a white feather. When Julian was in Australia, a white feather came to him. That’s where that comes from.”
Readers will likely have their own stories by the end of this pandemic, having conquered an unprecedented sojourn spent indoors. “What has become my personal choice to ‘voluntarily self-isolate’, has become a universal problem,” Emmer admits. “When I lived in the U.K., I visited the BBC Radiophonic. They were dressed in these Star Trek type uniforms. I thought it was fascinating, people could do this for a living. I recently read an article where Moby said he couldn’t charge people at the moment. So, I thought ‘ok’.”
Maison Melody is being released free of charge. Listeners are invited into one of the freshest classical projects in decades. These days, classical music is the new rock n roll. “Here, in The Netherlands, there are some music venues,” Emmer says. “In Amsterdam, there’s the Paradiso. I guess it’s like the Hammersmith Odeon. They’ve opened up for an event, but they’re only allowing something like thirty people in. I think it will be weird for the people; there’s room for so much more!”