Raymond Richards` The Lost Art Of Wandering was one of my favourite releases of 2020. A total gem, a pearl, of pedal steel “paintings”, poignantly describing the American landscape. Perhaps in some places remembering an old country as she changes, as ways of life disappear, fade. Tracing the points between map reference and memory, like a musical box-car ride. Raymond and I, we “connected” when I “reached out” to tell him that I was a fan. Raymond very kindly contributed to our end-of-year round ups, picking some damn fine music, which we shared. However, the plan was always to extend this into a full interview – since Mr. Richards has such a storied and colourful past, that takes in playing, and touring, with a whole load of fairly – in my mind at least – famous folks, across a variety of scenes. Hold onto your seats, here we go…
Where are you from?
I was born in Livermore, California, but we moved a year after my birth to Idaho Falls, Idaho. I consider myself an Idahoan.
Where are you based?
I currently live in Portland, Oregon, but spent the bulk of my life in Los Angeles, California.
When did you start making music?
My earliest efforts at making music were with my best friend Matt Hull, we were in a band called Poultry, She Cried. Later we became more serious and called the new band Mercy Buckets. I played bass and sang in both bands and shared the songwriting duties with Matt. I became fascinated with multi-tracking and took care of most of the recording and mixing duties.
What equipment did you have then?
I had an Ibanez Soundgear bass – later, in my 30s, I would take a lesson from Carol Kaye and discover her using the same model and color of bass – and we had Epiphone Electric and Acoustic guitars. We had a decent cassette multitrack recorder and some crummy mics our friend Serge had stolen from a church.
What sort of music were you making?
We were drawing a lot from British music of the late `80s and early `90s. Shoegaze was my favorite music then, while Matt had more expansive influences and was always playing something new for me. We always listened to the Stone Roses or Charlatans UK in the car.
What instruments can you play? Have you had any formal training?
I like to say if I don’t have to blow it or bow it I can play it. Meaning I can play most stringed instruments at least a little and can carry a tune on a keyboard, jaw harp, and most percussion. I’ve spent most of my years in bands playing the multi-instrumentalist role. I’ve never been interested in being a virtuoso on any one instrument, preferring rather to be competent at many. No formal training.
When and why did you “pick up” the pedal steel? Were there any artists or pieces of music that inspired you to do so?
I joined a band called The Sid Hillman Quartet a few years after moving to LA. It was a big deal for me, it was the exact kind of music I wanted to be making. It was somewhere between Spain and Acetone. The guitarist in the band, Greg Vincent, was quitting to spend more time playing in CAKE, and was nice enough to lend me a pedal steel and show me a few licks that he played in the band. He and I became best friends and – after being thrown out of the Quartet while on a tour, while I was playing with both them and the headline act, Mojave 3 – he and I went on to form The Idaho Falls. In that band he played pedal steel and I sang and played acoustic guitar. It was very Gram Parsons.
Could you give me a personal top three pedal steel pieces?
Smog / To Be Of Use
This particular song is stunning. It’s lean, direct, and guts me every time I hear it. The steel guitar is basically playing Pachelbel’s Canon. How crazy is that?! It fits perfectly. This was the main piece of music that made me really want to learn pedal steel. I showed up to a Smog soundcheck once, with my pedal steel in hand, hoping to sit in, and he – Bill Callahan – was a dick to me. Never meet your heroes kids.
Brian Eno / Deep Blue Day
Unsurprisingly this is one of the touchstones Andrew of ESP Institute played me when he commissioned The Lost Art of Wandering. It’s Daniel Lanois playing pedal steel. I wish he’d stayed with this lyrical style.
The Byrds / One Hundred Years From Now
Lloyd Green is hands-down my favorite traditional pedal steel guitarist. His style of playing is so supportive, liquid, and toneful, often bordering on funky.
Can you tell me more about the L.A. scene centred on the venues Spaceland and the Silverlake Lounge? How did you become a part of that scene? Who were the other prominent players, and alumni? How was Sonic Boom involved?
Scott Sterling, the Silverlake Lounge booker, would give any band a chance, especially if you lived in Silverlake. I don’t remember ever being paid by Scott, but that wasn’t the point. The Lounge was a dump, but it had a built-in audience that would listen. There were a lot of great bands in that scene, but the only band I thought was really special was Dios. I never felt like I was a part of that whole scene to be honest, I lived in West L.A., a very un-hip part of town. I never met Sonic Boom until touring with Dean Wareham of Luna in 2013 as his guitarist. He was a nice man, he bought us tapas. He took a picture with me that you’ll find on the Red Rockets Glare Instagram page.
I know that prior to your wonderful solo album, The Lost Art Of Wandering, you were in quite a few bands. Being a little star struck, I wanted to ask how did you hook up with “shoegaze” superstars Slowdive, and what was it like working with them as Mojave 3?
I saw that Mojave 3 was playing the Whiskey in L.A. and wrote Ian McCutcheon – their drummer – a nice email explaining that I knew all their songs on pedal steel and could play the show if they liked. I was lying of course, but I got the gig and learned the songs. The show went really well, and I struck up a natural friendship with Neil Halstead that lasted through his solo records, which I played on and toured alongside him for. I managed to get The Sid Hillman Quartet as the opening act for the Excuses For Travellers Mojave 3 tour and it was the most fun I’ve ever had. I was evidently having too much fun playing in Mojave 3 though, and was fired from the Quartet when we got back home.
Similarly, how did you meet Mazzy Star`s Hope Sandoval and My Bloody Valentine’s Colm Ó Cíosóig? What was it like working with them in The Warm Inventions? Is The Warm Inventions still an ongoing project?
I played pedal steel in Acetone for a bit, mostly to learn at the shrine of guitar god Mark Lightcap, and sadly the lead singer, Richie Lee, committed suicide before we could do any touring with the record. Mark and I became friends and when Hope and Colm needed a multi-instrumentalist for a US/EU tour my name came up. I got the job and practiced for what seemed like ages in Berkeley with the band. There was a level of nuance in that band that I never quite understood. That was a very uptight tour. I`d tell you more, but only over a pint.
Working with legendary folks such as these, was “shoegaze” a big influence on you?
Shoegaze music was a huge influence on me. I would say what people called Slowcore was as well, bands like Low and Acetone. I love taking my time to express a simple emotion. I feel like every record I make I will get closer to the slowness I aspire to.
The Lost Art Of Wandering plays like “a hymn to the American landscape”. How did you go about “visualising” the places you name check on the album – Roslyn, Fossil, Livermore, Idaho Falls – and translating those places / images into sound?
Thank you! I have, as a touring musician for the bulk of my life, seen all the nooks and crannies of this country. I love it. I love the fact that so many different people can co-exist relatively peacefully in one country. There are a lot of nasty events one can point at in the last several years to call this country a failure, but I can think of so many times when it went right, right in front of my eyes.
A song like Denton, TX is easy to explain. I was on tour in Texas, and sitting in the quaint town square of Denton when I realized I no longer had to prove anything to anyone. I dwelled on that emotion and time, and the song just leapt out of my hands in one take. A song like Roslyn, WA is a reference to Twin Peaks and Angelo Badalamenti, both of which have had a profound influence on me as a composer. Livermore, CA started as a rumination on the children’s song, You Are My Sunshine, and turned into a long tone-poem. You Are My Sunshine is what my mother would sing to me in Livermore, CA when I was a baby.
Can you tell me more about Red Rockets Glare?
Red Rockets Glare is a play on the national anthem….
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
I included that whole phrase in case you’re not familiar. I am not a patriot. I believe, as Samuel Johnson famously said, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” In L.A. I had a house with a garage that was converted into a recording studio. I overheard at a bar in Silverlake once, “where are you guys making your new record?”. “Raymond Richards’ Garage” was the answer. I thought we could do better than that, and started calling the studio, Red Rockets Glare. Some people think that it`s some kind of nom de plume that I use for myself, and that’s okay with me.
What made you start the label? Was there anyone else involved in its running?
The label was for tax purposes. I was working full-time at UCLA, and also declaring all the money I was making at the studio. It was putting me in a tax bracket I did not belong in. I basically used the label to siphon off my studio earnings into the records that I made with friends that would not have otherwise had a home or any promotion. I’m proud of every release I had. It was a solo venture.
Can you tell me more about the artists on the label?
My favorite was Frankel. Michael Orendy is such a talented artist with such a unique talent, who really deserves more attention than I was able to provide.
Would you consider starting a new label?
No, but I would consider running an imprint on a larger label if they left me alone.
What prompted the move from California to Oregon?
I missed the band I played in, The Parson Red Heads, and was sick of living in a gigantic metropolis.
Is there a healthy music scene in Oregon? Are there any local artists that we should watch out for?
Oh absolutely! I think aside from L.A., Portland has the best music scene on the West Coast. Check out 1939 Ensemble, Hannah Glover, and selfishly, The Parson Red Heads.
Prior to the pandemic did you have any favourite places to hangout and listen to music?
My favorite venue in town is Mississippi Studios. We play there a lot, and it’s only a few blocks from where I live. It used to be a church, and it still has a very reverent feel to it.
How about the local record stores – do you have any favourites?
Mississippi Records is kind of a dangerous place for me. I always find a record there that I NEED. Again, it’s a block from my house. That’s another reason I wanted to live in Portland. Here, you can walk or bike to most places.
When we last spoke you’d just taken on the running of the Long Play Recording Studios. How is that venture going? What projects are you working on at the moment? Are you working on any new music of your own?
It’s going so well. I’ve managed to find a few patrons to pay the monthly cost of the space, so it will be healthy financially, and not a drain on my family. I am mostly mixing everyone’s COVID home-recorded masterpiece at the moment, ha! I will begin work soon on a follow up record to The Lost Art of Wandering, again for ESP Institute, and I just finished an ambient record for LUNG Records – with folks like Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips of Luna guesting on the record.
You’ve mentioned before that you’d like to work with Surprise Chef. Is that any closer to happening? Are there any other artists that you’d love to work with?
HAHA! No, I should write them, it worked with Mojave 3, right? I’d love to work with any singer songwriter that is looking for some creative direction really.
Did you manage to launch the website, planned to showcase live sessions at Long Play Recordings?
That is still in the works, but we have three or four live video recordings that will find a home there.
Has the lockdown period been creatively productive for you?
So creative! I’m so lucky that Andrew Hogge aka Lovefingers, from ESP Institute, and David Beach at LUNG Records, both asked me to make ambient records for them. It awakened my creativity in ways I really couldn’t have predicted.
Are things beginning to open up again where you are?
Very much so, I sat at a bar and had a drink last week. It all felt very normal and awfully nice.
All being well what are your plans for the rest of the year?
I want to keep making more ambient music and hopefully go down to the river for a swim when it gets really hot.