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Interviews

Boston's Randy Roos-A Local Legend Sustains Infinitely

By Published: October 21, 2003
RR: Not really. I had a midi synth in '87 and I started scoring right away when I got that. I did entry-level stuff for a company that did industrial videos, like product releases, called Cambridge Studios. I went in and met with them and said, 'I'd love to write to picture.' I said, 'Give me something you've done and I'll write some music to it, just for fun.'

So they had a product release thing for Lotus Manuscript, their attempt at a Word Processor. They liked the music a lot. About a week later, they said they had shown the version I'd done to the Lotus people and they loved it. So they said they'd pay me for the music. Then they described another project to me and I worked up a piece of music I thought might be useful to them. Instead, they ended up using some of other music I did for the first project, and it worked perfectly. I ended up getting paid twice for music that I'd done for free. I was paid enough to realize, 'This is good!'(Laughs)

I did their stuff for about a year. Then a friend called to help out with a PBS special, and I got hired as a staff composer for a while. I was doing the New England Telephone radio ads. A lick from that made it onto my Liquid Smoke record. Sheldon Mirowitz is the guy's name. You think about musicians you know in Boston-he's one of the most active musicians in the town and people don't know who he is. He's done feature films and advertising. I'm sure you've heard hours of his music over the years. He had a deal with Narada, and he kept telling me to send them my stuff. He wrote them a whole long letter on my behalf. I did finally send stuff to Narada and the number two A and R guy, right away, called back and asked for more. I didn't send him anything until he called me again- so I did. I had plenty of stuff because I hadn't done a record myself in two years.

Actually, during those two years I did two solo projects with George Jinda, and I wrote half the material for those. George was great. I kept all the publishing on that, half the royalties, and it was his deal. Plus he paid me a session fee on top of that. I met him through the Photogenic Memory production company guy. During that time period, I had rented a room in New York and tried to hook up some stuff. But what ended up happening was - I ended up hanging out with George. The Hungarian pianist that always worked with George, Szakcsi , did the demos with him on a cassette playing piano and singing melodies- that was the demo. The producer for Special EFX told us to work up some demos. So I worked on it really hard, and they decided to put it on one of their records. Part of their deal with JVC was George was supposed to turn in a couple solo projects, so it worked out that four of their tunes and four of my tunes were on each record. The first one got a lot of airplay and sold very little. The second one-well, we got too musical with it so it didn't get any airplay.

AAJ: So that's the one to get huh?

RR: No, not really-it's not musical enough to be really serious-it's still smooth jazz

AAJ: Which brings us to your records for Narada, which are classified as New Age-great music!

RR: Well, Liquid Smoke, definitely. Primal Vision came next. Liquid Smoke was at the end of '93. Material I had for two years after Photogenic Memory. I did three records in a two-year period, which for me was major. It was, 'We like your demos. We're going to put this out. Here's this guy who pays guitar and is creative-here's his music-not really new age and certainly not smooth jazz-see if you like it.'

AAJ: How did you veer off from fusion music?

RR: I was not even thinking about it. I think the things I wanted were beautiful melodies and nice grooves 'there's a tune called 'Ferry' that was the most definitive. 'Copan' and 'Not so Far' were also very cool tunes that were more adventurous. As it was, this turned out to be older tunes that I had composed. I was not thinking of beautiful melodies as falling into any category in particular. I was hearing stations playing instrumental music and thinking, 'Well, if this were good and had value, what would it be?' Just like you could have a crappy Top 40 song or a really good, well-crafted, heartfelt, Top 40 song- instrumental music that could be listened to by someone other than a jazz player that had some value.

RR: Then there was the Raz record, which was unfortunate..that was me doing standards in the style of Primal Vision (laughs).

AAJ: I read a great review for that record somewhere.

RR: It got some great ones and a couple of scathing ones. The scathing ones were because it was trying to be smooth jazz, which it was. We were trying to make it a smooth jazz. We tried to make it be like a band, with Tim Archibald on bass and Steve Hunt on keyboards, who's only on one cut. My name is buried inside. My records had done so badly with Narada, we thought, 'Let's do this and try to do it as a band.' I thought we did a real nice arrangement of 'Afro Blue', and so did the smooth jazz radio folks. All smooth jazz radio programming is controlled by the company called Broadcast Architecture , which is somewhere in the Midwest. A lot of radio is that way now- very centralized.

AAJ: Somebody actually thinks this is a good idea?

RR: Somehow, the math works out that someone's profit margin is better if all the programming is centralized, right? It's that way in rock and pop too now. Anyway, it was a very frustrating kind of thing because initial indications were really great. A bunch of the program directors thought it was great and playing it as much as they could, but they had to get that green light from the office. They gave a terrific early indication, but who knows how they make those decisions. I heard it also happened to coincide with a bunch of other releases by so-called established artists.

AAJ: How big can the smooth jazz market share be, anyway?

RR: It's barely alive now, as far as I understand. But around 1990 or so it was kind of big, and then it shrunk and got bigger again, as far as my perception goes. In Boston, there were two smooth-jazz stations at the time this came out. I did stuff with both of them. I did an interview spot on one, and at the other, the sister of my friend, Phil Owens, was a DJ, and she did everything she could do. After working very hard on the record, very quickly, it was completely dropped. It was going to either make it on Broadcast Architecture or not. There was no other way to make a record happen. What happened, before that, was I did a version of 'Angel Eyes' that was real nice that's on the record, too. The head of A and R at Narada said, 'This is great! We gotta do this record.' I told him that I wanted it to be really hip, and he agreed. After I did a couple more tunes he said, 'We have to go for airplay'. I said, 'How are we going to do that?' He said, 'We're going to push it to smooth jazz markets.' So I said, 'OK, alright'. We tried with Liquid Smoke and it didn't work, we tried with Primal Vision, which I absolutely love as a record. A lot of people loved that record and it did not make it. So I came up with a new idea the record company likes, and I thought, 'I'll do it!'

After it didn't work-and of course through the whole time I had been investigating the smooth jazz medium and trying to figure out how to make it work- the feeling I had and I still feel this way-is that smooth jazz as an art form might be the lowest art form on the earth in terms of integrity level. It could be an embodiment of the worst creative efforts, done- currently anyway and maybe of all time-in terms of the actual level of integrity. You could look at Top 40 and say that, but you really can't, because a good Top 40 song is still a good song and production values are good-well, smooth jazz production values are pretty good, so there's a little bit of integrity there. Looking at the people who do it versus what comes out-you've basically got very accomplished musicians who are obviously doing something very different from what their center is about musically. The difference between what comes out and where that player, if he really, honestly admits it, would like it to be ' that difference is greater in that music than any other that's ever happened.

AAJ: It's music made for people who basically'

RR: Want to ignore music!

AAJ: That's it ..for working at the office in the background. Music that I like, I can't listen to it and work at the same time.

RR: I can't either, By the same token, I could never have smooth jazz on when I'm doing anything. I'd have to turn it off. It's an amazing phenomenon really, that there could be something like that.

AAJ: It's like Muzak on up.

RR: That's exactly what it is. Modern day Muzak. It's even crossing over into like, smooth dance, smooth club -go into the GAP and you'll hear that. Smooth jazz versions of dance music. Electro-lounge has actually got more integrity than what I'm talking about. It's actually an idiom-not that it's very good.

AAJ: On that track though, the DJ type track, it seems like you certainly could do whatever you want on your own, in terms of releasing projects or music, right from here. You could make artistic statements of your own here. Although you'd need help distributing or marketing them.

RR: I have stuff around. The Vertigo Z project is around, which is jazz and drum'n'bass. I don't know of it's real drum'n'bass and real jazz, or maybe even that it has conflicting aspects of language in it- that might be a problem, but then again, some of us think it's a great asset!

AAJ: I'm in that category-the Vertigo Z thing is absolutely ripping! But even if the thing about conflicting elements were true, isn't that just really part and parcel of getting the concept to where you want it to be?

RR: Yeah, the thing is that for me is that I often get too involved in things I really like instead of doing things I should be doing musically. Instead, I get swayed by things that I really like and kind of blend what I think I should be doing with those things rather than doing-or even figuring out- exactly what I want to do.

AAJ: But who does?

RR: What I'm working through now, though, is that I want to structure a way for myself to work faster. The Vertigo Z project got a bit too work and time intensive-not that I mind spending time and working hard, but it's easy to lose sight of the initial impulse that made you want to begin working on a piece of music. If it's overwrought, if you overwork that kernel, the kernel gets destroyed or watered down in some way. I'm getting older and I don't want to work like that. I don't want to go through the suffering I have to go through to make a project like that happen.

AAJ: So what was the kernel?

RR: Each song had a kernel. The main concept was that I was fascinated by the drum'n'bass thing and I just wanted to do something that used those types of grooves and I wanted to do it with live musicians involved, not just machines. I wanted Eric Kerr 's approach to drum'n'bass to be there. Sometimes, I think the pieces may be more complex than they needed to be, then other times it sounds just right. The soundscape can get very dense, but that can make it work in a way, too.

I want to find a way of crystallizing things more and working more spontaneously. For instance, I read an interview with Moby-some of his stuff I really do like. I found the interview kind of inspiring in that a typical day in the life of Moby is; he gets up-he writes a couple songs. Has breakfast-writes a couple songs-has lunch-hangs out with a friend for a bit-comes back writes a couple songs-goes out and plays with the neighbor's dog and writes a couple songs-then has dinner and works all night on four more songs. So when it comes time for a record he has about 150 songs and he's gotta find like 18 out of 150! I would love to have that problem. I would like to have songs at the end of the day.

This is one thing I love about scoring-at the end of the day I've done four cues and they're nice. Especially the way I do it. I have the best scoring gig on the planet, you know? I write for the 'Scientific American' show on TV. It's a very informative, educational show-completely worthwhile television. There are a lot of different places the music can go on it. The people I work with are fabulous. I almost never do any redos on the show because I understand how to do that show and they love what I do for it. So it's a really nice situation. I love to check out the results of the day-especially when there are three or four good pieces of music! Short, well produced, and they work for the visual and thematic thing for the show. I would love for that to happen with my own music, but so far, I just have not figured that out. I'll spend a day on half of a drum loop!

AAJ: You already have it figured out but it's difficult to apply it to your own thing

RR: Exactly. Also, the production necessary for scoring is a whole different kind of production-it has to be minimal. It's a question of getting it to the point that's right or the show. One more sound and it wouldn't be right. That's a level of control that I find very difficult to put on myself. It's easy when the show makes me control myself to it-but when I have to control myself, by myself '(laughs)

On the other hand, maybe I shouldn't say that. There's a lot of music I like and I hear those details on the first listening, and I know the hours that went into getting those details to happen. Maybe there's no way around it. Maybe to do the kind of music that involves working this way 'you just have to be at that level of detail. Parts of the Vertigo Z thing definitely have that. Also, we've been working on some Club D'Elf tunes here for a year! So that can get detailed too, even though the vibe may begin in a very loose way.

AAJ: None of the other guys in the band can have a studio setup this good.

RR: Actually Jere Faison has quite a good setup.

AAJ: By the way, I really enjoyed the gigs you guys did with Frank Heiss , as well as the Kenwood Dennard gig you and Heiss did.

RR: Frank Heiss is really good. We would like to work together at some point. He's a very interesting fellow.. nuts, but'. He has a small setup that he really gets some great stuff out of. That's better. It's better to have a few things and really squeeze some great stuff out of them than have too much stuff.

AAJ: You guys should just record here.

RR: There are a lot of things I should do. The other thing is that there are things I really like other than music. The idea of just being in the studio working on music all the time..I don't really just do that. Right now, I've just got to decide on some stuff to do and just do it. The other thing is that I wish I could just get some stuff out.The idea of doing music that doesn't get listened to is distasteful to me. I always felt that the communication thing should somehow happen, and it should somehow get out there and beyond that, do some good.

AAJ: I interviewed Jef Lee Johnson recently, a great multi instrumentalist, singer and guitarist who has put a lot of stuff out all of a sudden. He made a really good point. He said he was sick of recording stuff at home and just making it better. He decided to let go of it. He used the analogy of a painter painting at home and hanging his paintings up on his own walls.

RR: That's a great analogy. But in the other hand, I am wary of just putting it out via the web. If you just throw it up on website, how many billions of things are already out there?

AAJ: It seems to me you need someone to help you with the administrative end of that.

RR: Totally. Trying to get your own thing out there is very frustrating.

AAJ: So, you've had it both ways. You had national distribution with Narada.

RR: Yes, and I must say I lost more sleep with Narada than at any time of my life. I just felt they were dropping the ball and when I tried to get on them to do stuff, they would just get pissed at me.



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