When Alan Parsons first entered the sacred halls of Abbey Road, the starry-eyed teenager made a bold prediction that he was walking into the career he’d have for the rest of his life. He was right. Parsons recently spoke with EU Jacksonville about his contributions to the music industry and how every path leads back to the beginning.
The Alan Parsons Live Project performs the greatest hits from the early years of his catalog with the Jacksonville Rock Orchestra Feb 10 at the Florida Theatre. The original lineup of the British prog rock band primarily consisted of Parsons and Eric Woolfson with a revolving number of session musicians. Hits included ‘Sirius,’ ‘Eye in the Sky,’ ‘Games People Play’ and ‘Don’t Answer Me.’
“I haven’t stopped making records. We’ve put stuff out on a fairly regular basis, but with the state of the industry now, it’s tough to penetrate through all the other stuff that’s out there, so we rely largely on the catalog. The show is substantially taken from the years ’76 to ’87. I don’t feel the need to reinvent myself. I’m just glad to still be here playing the songs from that period that people seem to still want to hear, which is great,” says Parsons.
“I love to play live. The whole concert experience is dreamily exhilarating. A lot of my music was recorded with full orchestra, so it’s always a joy to have an orchestra there to bring it that much closer to the recorded sound. It’s tricky. There are techniques involved in getting a loud rock band to blend with an orchestra, much quieter of course. There are technical problems, but we’ve managed in normal circumstances to get over those bumps.”
It’s hard to grasp the concept that an artist is not always the performer. Parsons long ago reconciled the fluidity in blurring those lines. With the Alan Parsons Project, he was known for his keyboard work and was rarely on lead vocals. He’s comfortable in his role as an accessory to the music behind the console, approaching a project as a director would a film. He follows no specific format. Instead, he trusts the process to create an organic experience and sound.
“I tend to just follow instincts. There are other producers that have a completely mapped out sense of what they’re trying to do. I work on spur-of-the-moment ideas and just instincts,” says Parsons. “That is one aspect of making records. The other aspect is getting the best performance out of people. That is an interesting part of the process of recording. You just work toward what you think is going to be a successful finished product.”
Parsons was 19 and a guitarist in a British blues band when he landed a job as an assistant sound engineer at London’s famed Abbey Road Studios. “When I walked up the steps of Abbey Road for my first day at work, I said, ‘This is what I’m going to do. I’m going to make something of this,’” he says. “I said, ‘I’m going to give up the band and do this.’ I decided to be a listener rather than a player right at that moment.”
Parsons made a name for himself working as an engineer on The Beatles’ Abbey Road and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon albums. He went on to produce Year of the Cat by Al Stewart and Bay City Rollers’ spinoff band, Pilot. It was good, honest work that just so happened to leave an indelible imprint on music history.
“I think in the case of the Beatles one always knew that everything they did was going to be legendary. Pink Floyd less so,” he says. “We certainly felt that magic at the time, but I don’t think any of us could say at that time that we would still be talking about the album 45 years later. I’m proud of it, and I’m proud that I’m a part of it.”
Parsons was nominated for his first Grammy Award, the Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical category, for his work on Dark Side of the Moon, but he declined the band’s invitation to participate in their follow-up Wish You Were Here. He can’t help but to hear the things he would’ve done differently, but he doesn’t regret his choice to move on to other projects.
“I did the right thing. I went on to have hits as a producer, and if I’d taken them up on their offer, I might still be working under their direction and probably not earning a huge amount of money,” says Parsons. “I made the right decision, but it is a regret that we only did one record together. That is a regret.”
He launched the Alan Parsons Project with Woolfson, whom he met at Abbey Road. He farmed the majority of the original players from Pilot, with whom he’d recorded several hit songs. “It was because of what I did at the time. I’m an engineer and a producer making an album with my own name on it; I had to call upon a pool of talent. I was fortunate enough that I worked with a lot of artists and had a good choice of people to call,” he says. “It’s a nice luxury to have because a lot of artists would not be able to switch the guitar player or singer according to the feel of the song. It really became a trademark of mine that I had this variety and this pool of artists to call upon.”
The live component was not part of the process when he first embraced the concept of a rotating cast of players in the Alan Parsons Project. He finally took to the road in 1994, after dropping the “Project” and releasing his first solo album, appropriately titled Try Anything Once. He later changed the name to the Alan Parsons Live Project, to reflect the professional break with Woolfson.
“My background really is in the studio, engineering and production and the like. The live shows came as an extension of that, almost out of necessity because we needed to get live exposure, especially with the dwindling sales of records,” he says. “We needed to give the records every chance we could give them, and playing live seemed an obvious step to take at the time we did.”
He also returned to his old, hallowed stomping grounds at Abbey Road in the late-90s but instead of running sound, Parsons was running the show. “I actually returned for a short time as the boss,” he says of his brief stint as head honcho, an experience he likens to the inmate taking over the asylum. “I virtually ran away screaming. The executive life and answering to the board of EMI was not my idea of fun. It was short-lived, that relationship. I went into it thinking it would be much more creative than it turned out to be. It turned out to be salary reviews, profit and loss calculations and spreadsheets, but to go from tape librarian to being the vice president was a good feeling.”
Parsons continues to produce, having worked recently with Porcupine Tree singer Steven Wilson and ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro. He is working on a new project with Israeli artist Aziz Geffen in conjunction with Wilson and he has a live DVD coming out in April.
He also offers master classes in recording sessions at studios around the world, a continuation of a lecture series he did in partnership with Abbey Road Studio on the art and science of sound engineering. “The things I did recently at Abbey Road were partly under their organization. I did some talks based on my career in studio 2, which is the famous studio,” he says. “Now I do what we call Master Class Training Sessions on a regular basis which involves getting talent into the studio and actually making a record.”
Following his performances in Jacksonville and Clearwater, Parsons will continue southward where he will conduct a master class with Miami-based artist Chris Price, a member of Taylor Locke and The Roughs and son of Grammy Award-winning record producer and songwriter Rudy Pérez. Price is also a record producer and songwriter best known as the producer of the 2014 album The Soul of All Natural Things by Linda Perhacs and producer of the upcoming new album by Emitt Rhodes. He independently released the album Homesick as a solo artist in 2012.
“It’s an opportunity to see how one guy works. I’m not saying I’m any better at the job than anybody else,” he says. “It’s just a good opportunity for people who have never actually watched a recording session or have things to learn. It’s almost like a classroom, but, at the same time, it’s creating something. I like that.”