Richard Lloyd: The Countdown Will Be Televised

Photos courtesy of Plowboy Records.

Oh, the times, how they have a-changed. Iconoclast guitarist Richard Lloyd discovered just how much change has gone on in recent years upon seeing the John Varvatos designer clothing store that occupies the space on The Bowery in Greenwich Village in downtown New York where the mighty CBGB once stood. CBGB was the cutting-edge music club where Lloyd cut his teeth as guitarist and founding member of 1970s punk/alt-rock icons Television. Ever the philosophical pragmatist, Lloyd takes a worldly “been there, seen that” perspective when I asked him about experiencing such a potentially jarring real-estate/cultural shift firsthand.

“Oh yeah, I’ve been in the store,” Lloyd confirmed, “but CBGB had stopped being vital 20 years before it closed [in October 2006]. It had long ago turned into having eight or nine bands a night where people would only come to see one band, and then leave. When we played there [starting in April 1974], it was two bands a night, and you’d stay all night. We played two sets each, so the two bands cross-pollinated the audience. It was like throwing a 3-year-long party. CBGB is just a chain now. I’ve walked by the one at Newark Airport, but I haven’t gone inside. I’m afraid that’s what the kids are going to remember: ‘CBGB? Oh yeah, that’s a restaurant.’”

Thankfully, we still have recorded evidence of much of the pioneering music that made CBGB great during its heyday, and Lloyd has long since added to that canon with some stellar solo releases (1979’s angularly cool Alchemy, 2001’s scorchingly direct The Cover Doesn’t Matter) and sideman work (most notably as singer/songwriter Matthew Sweet’s blistering guitar foil on 1991’s Girlfriend). Lloyd recently added to his own storied résumé with the laser-sharpness of The Countdown (Plowboy Records), a confessional soundtrack of sorts comprised of equal parts guitar discharge and introspective personal evaluation.

Lloyd, 67, got on the line with me from his Tennessee homebase to discuss the vinyl-intended sonic template of The Countdown, why Television’s seminal 1977 debut album Marquee Moon remains perpetually influential, and his take on creating sound in outer space. Just like smoke, it tends to disappear. . .

Mike Mettler: I really like the tone and tempo of this record, Richard. I’ve spent more time listening to it through headphones than on open-air speakers because I wanted to zero in on the interplay between the guitar, bass, and drums.
Richard Lloyd: That’s great, because I love listening to music through headphones too. Well, the record was done really quite quickly, actually. My co-producer, Ben Ewing — who is also my manager and works for the record company, Plowboy — he picked the studios [Studio 19 Sound Kitchen in Franklin, Tennessee, and Sound Emporium Studios in Nashville] and the engineers [Richie Owens, who also mixed the album, and Kyle Hershman]. I hadn’t put that process out of my hands for a number of records, so that was an experience, I’ll tell ya. But I had a great say in all of it.

The guys we chose to work with were great too, and we used the same microphones I would have chosen myself, as well as the drums and the guitars.

Mettler: That’s good to know. To me, The Countdown has a cool, live-off-the-floor kind of sound.
Lloyd: It does. We did all the basic tracks in 2 days, we did the guitar overdubs in 2 days, and we did the vocals in 1 day. It wasn’t rushed. I had already done demos of seven of the songs the record company approved of, and then I added another three. One of those three is the title song, which is a crazy jam about outer space! (chuckles)

Mettler: We’ll have to talk more about your interest in space in just a bit, but that title track is one heavy windout at the end of the record that literally sends us into the stratosphere. Overall, The Countdown is a nice, concise, 39-minute record. Would you say it was specifically conceived for vinyl playback?
Lloyd: I would, yes. It will be out on vinyl early next year, so it won’t be long before you can play it that way. I’m as excited about vinyl as anything. Not only for playback, but also for the larger artwork.

Mettler: It will be nice to see your cover painting in the bigger LP format for sure. I want to get your opinion on something I read on page 350 of your autobiography [Everything Is Combustible: Television, CBGB’s and Five Decades of Rock and Roll, originally published by Beech Hill in November 2017]. It’s in Chapter 69, the one titled “Suffering,” where you’re talking about the elusive quality of “it.” When you also talk about “suffering,” is it a combination of human suffering and artistic suffering? Does the phrase “suffer for your art” apply to what you’re talking about here in the book?
Lloyd: Well, absolutely! To be an artist is almost like being a safecracker. Safecrackers used to use sandpaper on their fingertips — not in order to take off their fingerprints, but in order to make their fingers so damn sensitive when they touched the tumblers. When they turned the knob on the safe, they would feel the tumblers fall, and an artist has to strip himself like that.

There’s a lot of material on this new record that’s very, very personal and sensitive, a lot of it on the unrequited love topic. Besides songs like “Countdown,” “Down the Drain,” and “Run,” there’s also this deep, ingrained kind of loneliness in me that needs a release.

The Countdown is very poignant to me personally. It’s very difficult to put that out to the public in the sense of suffering, but one has to be honest.

Mettler: If as an artist you’re not true to yourself and to your work, you wouldn’t even put it out there because you’d know it would come across as being false.

Lloyd: Yes. There’s a record I did called The Radiant Monkey (2007) that didn’t receive a lot of attention, but I’m very fond of it. In it, I got to “play” a number of different characters who are not me, so it’s a very different kind of record. But this one, The Countdown, is a very personal record.

Mettler: We can also see that in the artwork on the back cover, the blue-hued self-portrait you have there. Can we say that?
Lloyd: You could. All artists do self-portraits, in a sense. It’s out of their subconscious, especially if they’re doing anything abstract or impressionistic. And that’s a very impressionistic piece, even though it’s of a figure. Beyond the color, there’s also a kind of poignant sadness in it.

Everybody loved that painting and they wanted to use it as the cover, but I said, “Well, maybe as the back cover.” The painting I did that’s on the front I did specifically for the album cover.

Mettler: I think it fits the album title too, because it has a sense of moving up and out.
Lloyd: Correct! And I love the way the graphics designer [Anthony Garza] designed the album, because it looks like an old jazz record.

Mettler: It feels like it’s part of that classic Dave Brubeck Quartet era, right around the time of Time Out [which was originally released in December 1959].

Lloyd: I would hope so, yeah. That’s spectacular for you to make that comparison. I love that record, so that’s fantastic to hear.

Mettler: You must be pleased that there’s a bit of a vinyl revival going on, in terms of how people listen to music these days.
Lloyd: You know, I do think that. I’ve come around to vinyl. Around the time when Marquee Moon came out [in February 1977], I got a test pressing. I put it on and I cried, because I thought to myself, “They will never hear what we heard in the studio.” In a sense, a vinyl record is almost like scratching a nail on a piece of plastic in a spiral — it’s very caveman, in a sense. And I thought, “Well, something will come along that’s better than that.”

Then my record player broke, and I never replaced it. I stopped collecting records, and I stopped listening to music, really, for a very, very long time. When CDs first came out, they were God-awful! But now, they’re very, very good.

Mettler: Not being able to reproduce the full dynamic range of a recording is often a problem in the digital realm.
Lloyd: Exactly! And it’s about bit length, too. It’s like trying to make a circle out of a straight line. In the beginning, they didn’t have enough straight lines, so they’d turn out to be square, or octagonal. The top end especially suffered. But now, you can actually hear the top end of cymbals and the bottom end of the bass, and it’s okay.

Mettler: In recent years, Rhino has put out upgraded reissues of Marquee Moon and Television’s second album, Adventure (April 1978), on higher-grade vinyl. Have you spent any time listening to them?
Lloyd: Only briefly to some of the 180-gram reissues — but they’re very, very good. It approximates what we heard in the studio.

Mettler: That’s encouraging to hear you say that, considering what you said about hearing that Marquee Moon test pressing back in the day. It’s great to really hear what’s happening on those albums like you put it in the book about what happens when you and Tom Verlaine play guitar together — when your Strat and his Jazzmaster come together in the right way, there’s something there that is just completely unique. Did you have a sense of it at the time? Did you think the album had that kind of staying power?
Lloyd: I did. And Seymour Stein, who wanted to sign us to Sire Records, he did too. Marquee Moon won’t ever stop being influential and valuable. It was just one of those things that was a magic moment — like The Doors’ first record, or Love’s first record, or Big Star’s — like a lot of first records that are really well-formed through and through.

And Elektra Records was a great label for us — until they got The Cars. Then it was like they had a commercial version of Television.

Mettler: The Cars put Television in the rearview mirror to some degree, I guess. Well, let’s get back to The Countdown. I really like the guitar tone you get on “I Can Tell.” I also like the line in it that goes, “She’s got the rhythm that keeps it in the groove.”
Lloyd: Oh, thank you. Yessir! Cool. As to the guitars, I used a Supro Black Holiday and an Epiphone Casino, which was favored by John Lennon and The Beatles. Terrific guitars.

Mettler: Do you think people are listening to records more carefully now because they have to physically interact with the medium itself?
Lloyd: Absolutely! It’s not MP3 — in fact, it’s so much better than MP3. MP4s are pretty good, but they don’t cotton to the sounds you get on good vinyl.

Mettler: I also like it if we can also listen to music in hi-res at 24/96, or even 24/48.
Lloyd: I always did 24/82, because it’s an even number than divides down to 41. But when you use 96, you have to dither down. That’s the reason I’ve stayed away from 96.

Mettler: There are debates about being able to detect the differences between 192kHz and 96kHz, but you can definitely tell the difference between 16-bit and 24-bit.
Lloyd: Oh yeah. I had a 16-bit ADAT for a time, and then I got the Alesis HD24 [hard disk recorder], and that was so much better! You could hear the tails on the reverbs, and they faded just right. All of a sudden, you didn’t have to tell the drummer to say away from the cymbals so much. (chuckles) It was a fantastic difference.

Mettler: I like the detail work you leave in on certain Countdown songs, like at the end of “Wind in the Rain,” where you can hear a bit of the amp buzz before the song fades out.
Lloyd: (cackles) You can! You know that thing, “I can name that song in three notes”? I used to name the song before it started, because of the reverb on the single. I could hear the room sound.

Mettler: Wow, I love that. As you’ve said before, you have good “aural memory,” since you’re able to recall sounds like that from just about any song you’ve heard.
Lloyd: I don’t have anything like perfect pitch, but I’ve got good relative pitch, which is enough to go by. But, yeah, I have a great aural memory, in that regard. I remember the sounds of most everything I’ve ever listened to.

Mettler: As a critical listener to your own material, you can tell when something doesn’t sound “right,” can’t you? You can tell when something’s off.
Lloyd: Yeah. A lot of times, on my own records that I do myself, I’ll play the same guitar part 50 times, just to try to get it in a certain pocket. People will come in and say, “Why are you doing that?” And I say, “Because I like to play that part!” (laughs heartily)

Mettler: Since we were talking about space earlier, I have to ask you, if there was an actual mission to Mars, would you accept? Would you go?

Lloyd: Uhh, I would rather go outside the solar system. Mars is not a pretty inviting place, that’s for darn sure. I mean, I might certainly take it on, if that was the option.

Mettler: I recently talked about this idea with the scientists and writers behind National Geographic’s MARS TV series. If you joined the Voyager exploration program and went to the other side of the solar system, would you even be able to play anything on guitar that made any type of sound?
Lloyd: Well, in space, there’s vibration. There’s no sound per se, but the aesthetics of musical law still pervade, and I think that pervades the universe — the circle of fifths and fourths, and the major scale. There’s an interesting book about that whole subject [This Is Your Brain on Music, by Daniel J. Levitan], and there was a question in it about, “Does the major scale exist outside the objective reality of the Earth? Would a civilization that came along find it, or would they do something completely different?” The consensus at the end of the book was that this definitely is a numerical and mathematical law, and they would find it out.

Mettler: Didn’t we sort of see that in 2001, with the apes and the bones?
Lloyd: Absolutely!

Mettler: I think I remember reading how music from artists like Chuck Berry and The Beach Boys have been shot or beamed into space, so who knows — somebody could eventually hear “Good Vibrations” on the other side of the universe. Wouldn’t that be something?
Lloyd: (laughs heartily) That would be something! But, as you know, we all gotta leave planet Earth pretty soon anyway — and some of us may eventually be able to leave in another manner.