“The idea of a solo workaholic auteur creates these expectations that you have to be a depressive loner or a misanthrope to make good music.”
“The idea of a solo workaholic auteur creates these expectations that you have to be a depressive loner or a misanthrope to make good music.”
(This interview originally appeared on Wondering Sound, a site since vanished down the memory hole of the internet.)
Ned Doheny scans as a lucky man. Born into an oil tycoon fortune, the California-born singer-songwriter befriended Jackson Browne when both were teenagers and soon found himself signed to David Geffen’s newly-minted Asylum Records alongside the likes of Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, and the Eagles. By the mid-70s Doheny’s songs were being covered by Chaka Khan, Average White Band, and David Cassidy to name a few, yet for his own career, fame and fortune eluded him. His particularly sweet and rhythmic take on blue-eyed soul fell on deaf ears with the release of his second album, 1976’s Hard Candy, despite Boz Scaggs’ breakout success with Silk Degrees but a few months earlier. And while Doheny’s laidback work also scans as “yacht rock,” he was even looked over with that subgenre’s revival.
But Doheny has always been revered by DJs. Even as his third album Prone failed to even garner release in the US, soul-minded UK DJs made a hit out of that album’s single “To Prove My Love.” And now he’s finally getting his due with Numero Group’s overview, Separate Oceans. Wondering Sound rang up Ned Doheny one afternoon at his ranch house in Simi Valley, where he talked about the Santa Ana Winds, how being stubborn affected his fame, David Geffen’s relationship to his body, and why Lost in Translation resonated with him.
Hi Ned. Where am I reaching you right now?
I live in a ranch in Simi Valley which my family has had since I was five. The house is small but lovely. And it puts me in striking range of Oxnard and Ventura County, which is where I surf. Being a surfer, when the Santa Ana Winds come out of the desert blow off shore, it makes for good surfing. But those winds can do some serious damage inland.
You’re from a wealthy family through your grandfather, so was music an act of leisure or of rebellion?
Music was listened to constantly in my house. As a kid, you look at all that and it was obvious what they loved. By the time I was six, the fools gave me a guitar! I went through the folk period, which wasn’t a huge favorite of mine; Folk was too soft and not physical enough for me. But then surf music came along and that was part of my culture, kicking the amps for reverb and all that. Lonnie Mack took my breath away. That was the first guitarist where I thought to myself “Holy shit! I would love to be able to do that.” It wasn’t until I got into Motown and Philly Soul that I began to realize that you could be sophisticated yet still write rhythm music. I also love Hoagy Carmichael. I drank that all in. Music that could get your body and mind on the same wavelength is an almost spiritual endeavor for me.
How did you wind up meeting David Geffen?
When we were still teenagers, Jackson Browne and I were involved with a recording studio in Northern California. We all went up to this recording ranch and somehow got Jac Holzman of Elektra into funding this thing. When that crumbled in Northern California, I then came back to Los Angeles and studied classical music for a year. I learned classical guitar and went “Now what am I going to do?” My hands were really strong yet I still haven’t figured out how to integrate all this into music. So I wound up in London where I met Dave Mason. I started writing stuff for Dave Mason and Cass Elliott. I met everybody there. I met the Beatles, Eric Clapton.
When I came back from London and Dave Mason and Cass, I stayed at the Chateau Marmont and reconnected with Jackson, who was now involved with Geffen. He recommended me to David Geffen and one thing led to another and I was signed by him. But Jackson himself came perilously close to not being signed. His demo and picture were rescued from the dustbin at the office by one of the secretaries, who thought he was cute. Girls have always driven this business. Jackson got me together with David. But at Asylum, some of us were blessed and others were not.
Asylum was pretty much pointed towards people who came directly from singer-songwriters. I was really the only guy on the label who played rhythm music. Geffen enjoyed an ‘unusual’ relationship with his own body and I wasn’t speaking his language. I was the only groove guy. I was outside David’s experience. He didn’t know what to do with me.
How fickle is fame?
Oh God. It’s so silly. One true believer can make all the difference for your career. Without that believer, it’s a different business. If you’re a Buddhist, on one level it’s ordained. But on the other hand, if you’re fortunate enough to be standing in the right spot when the sun comes out, you’re in business. It’s highly speculative. But people who are successful will admit there’s a tremendous component of luck.
Did you feel unlucky?
No. I was a grumpy little prick. How did the suits describe it? “He does not take direction well.” That was my description. I was raised by down-to-earth straight shooters. The idea of the audience not meeting me halfway was grounds for divorce. I was clinging desperately to my own stuff. I had a lot of opportunities and chances are that if I had just shut up and done what they told me, we’d be having a very different conversation. But it’s been an interesting arc. I can see what I should have done differently but maybe the marriage doesn’t work, but then there’s a child. You can’t completely toss out the entire experience because there were so many other experiences connected to it. I could have been more receptive (sighs) to direction though.
Your song “Get It Up for Love” was covered by the likes of Average White Band, Tata Vega, David Cassidy, etc. When you saw people covering your work and having success, was it frustrating to release your own records and not have it come back to you?
It was a little frustrating. A lot of it is timing. I ran into Clive Davis shortly after Hard Candy came out in 1976 on Columbia and he said “Jeez, if I had known you were going to make that record I would have signed you for sure!” and I’m like “Thanks? Much appreciated.”
I first discovered “Get It Up for Love” because of a DJ comp and went “Who is this California singer-songwriter with this groove to it?”
Dance music is the most fun, I think. Other songs have poetic substance, but it’s also nice to fly about and not think. I try to split the difference. Lyrically, you can tell people dangerous things if you’re inviting them to dance. It’s a great platform to offload your treasonous thoughts. It was really funny, CBS wouldn’t even release Prone in the states, but I had a huge dance record in Britain with “To Prove My Love.” The dance contingent went nuts for that song and to this day, I have huge cred among DJs.
After Prone, you no longer had a label, but you were in the truest sense, “big in Japan.” And in listening to some Japanese artists, I can see that strain of sophisticated pop in certain Japanese singers that I have to think stems from your music.
Career-wise, in the late 70s, things were in the toilet for me. I was living in the Hollywood Hills and my girlfriend had moved out. To top it off, it rained for three months –most I had ever seen in Los Angeles– with cars coming down Laurel Canyon sideways without drivers in them. Manhole covers flying off with plumes of water and Santa Monica Boulevard in four feet of standing water. So I got a call from these people going: “You want to go play in Japan?” And I thought: “Why not?” So I jumped on a plane.
And it was so strange. The country is so beguiling. It’s like being in a cartoon. The whole country is a non sequitur. I went from absolute obscurity to being quite well-known. In Japan, the audience doesn’t say a word or make a sound, but then at the end, they would charge the stage like rhinos. We played in Osaka, and after the concert we get back to the hotel and there’s all these people in front of the hotel. I went: “Oh, there must be someone famous staying here.” But so we get out of the car and it turned out it was me! I had always laughed about Japan as it seemed to me that people who had no career went there to be resurrected. I thought about the actor Russ Tamblyn and certain actors. That’s what was so great about Lost in Translation.
I just saw 20 Feet From Stardom and one of the subjects is Tata Vega, who does a great cover of “Get It Up for Love.” In the movie, she says that had she sold a million records at that time in the 70s, she would be dead form a drug overdose. In hindsight, do you feel it was a blessing of sorts to have not had such fame?
Who knows? Maybe. When you receive that much attention, the message is, “You’re doing something right.” Sadly, the dark aspects of one’s personality are exalted right alongside the creative ones – hardly a recipe for humility and grace. The trick as I see it is to figure out how to starve your demons, not feed them. Most people don’t do well in the public eye. I have always thought that the best way to deal with fame would be to not take it personally. Mercifully, that has not been my problem.
Were you surprised when Numero Group reached out to you with this project? Did you think that people would still care about your music thirty years on?
Not really. Life has always amazed me and I draw hope from its lack of predictability. The Numero Group is a bunch of lads who love music as I do. Small wonder we should find one another. That part is a bit unexpected, but the digital revolution has accelerated our evolution exponentially. We consume and spit out information at an astounding rate; coupled with an insipid and largely formulaic music business, all that’s left is the search for buried treasure.
What was it like to revisit the demos of some of these songs? In listening back to this young version of yourself, is there something you notice now that you didn’t realize back then?
Just how lucky I was.
“According to the Senoi, pleasurable dreams, such as of flying or sexual love, should be continued until they arrive at a resolution which, on awakening, leaves one with something of beauty or use to the group. For example, one should arrive somewhere when he flies, meet the beings there, hear their music, see their designs, their dances, and learn their useful knowledge.”
Here’s the long version of my interview with Ryuichi Sakamoto from April.
Where were you when you heard about the passing of Bowie?
I was here in New York when I heard he passed away. It was only two days after his album, it was a huge shock.
You both starred in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence and you both called New York City home the past few decades. I wonder if you would see him around town. Had you been in touch with him?
Since we were together making that film, we had some contact afterwards. Then naturally, we lost contact. He was not easy to reach, but I knew he was living in downtown New York. Now I regret that I didn’t try more to get together with him and talk personally. He was a fascinating guy.
I think about all your collaborations and it’s interesting that you only collaborated with Bowie as actors. What did you learn acting with him versus doing music?
He was a great visual artist. He knew how to look as himself in the best ways. He tried many different ways. He was a great visual artist and his only material was himself. I’m not like that. I’m not sure I learned any acting from him. Musically, certainly, I got some influence from him, especially in the early days and his Berlin Trilogy albums, they were a huge impact on me.
Did you ever talk to him about that?
Well, musicians are very shy to talk about each others’ music, so no, not really. I’m sure he knew I was a big fan of his albums.
Did he know Yellow Magic Orchestra?
He did, he did. He also knew some of my soundtracks too.
After I turned forty years old, I got very concerned about my health. I tried to eat organic food, I was very interested in macrobiotic. I thought I was completely healthy. When it started, the first symptom, I had never thought about cancer. Maybe it’s because of aging?
What was the symptom?
Something there (he moves his fingers along the left side of his throat). It was very irritated, but I didn’t think of cancer, so I left it for six months as it got bigger and bigger. This is something extraordinary, so I went to the doctor and did a biopsy. It’s cancer. My faith of “health” was crushed (claps hands together). Even though I ate organic food for more than twenty years, but still. This is life. It was radiotherapy. I could have lost my voice, so I feel very lucky that I didn’t. But the treatment was so harsh and I got the biggest pain in my life from the treatment. I couldn’t do anything, just watching some DVDs. All the work, all the schedule, I had to cancel. I’ve worked full-time since I was a student, more than forty years. It was very harsh, painful, but I wanted to use this time for something productive. So I decided to watch movies I hadn’t watched before, mainly Chinese films, throughout the decades, 70s-today. I’m more familiar with Japanese films. I knew Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi. I grew up with Oshima’s films and know them.
Carsten said you’re a workaholic, so it had to be hard to do nothing.
The funny thing is that for a long time after I won the Oscar for The Last Emperor, I thought I should give a gift to myself and to my staff. I said: “Let’s cancel all the schedule for one month.” And they did. And then after three days, I was like “Where’s my work?!” Three days. That’s what I was like.
Did you find yourself going crazy not being able to work?
I think so. Like riding a bicycle, you can’t be still.
How long did treatments last?
It was three months. I took free time for six months. my plan was to take a whole year, 2015, just doing nothing and getting back my energy. But then six months after the treatment I got the call from Innaritu all of a sudden, who said: “Come to LA tomorrow.” I was in the middle of recovery process, so I wasn’t sure I could do that. I returned to work slowly, but it was worth it. I couldn’t resist working with such a talented person. But I thought the cancer would come back after all that hard work. It was strange, that I was a lucky man. I never felt any limitation for myself. I thought I could do anything I wanted. The result is that I can reach to the goal, I was such a lucky person. But then after the treatment, my energy level was very low, so I tried my limit. It was the first time in my life I couldn’t, I lost myself. It’s a nice feeling I think, to think ‘I’m a loser.’ I was such a lucky person.
When you listen to Blackstar, Bowie’s last album, was that in your mind, ‘what if this is the last time I get to do this’?
Yes, I actually thought it could be my last one. So that’s why I tried to forget all the rules and forms, anything. I just wanted to put down just what I wanted to hear, just a sound or music, it doesn’t matter. This could be the last time.
What kind of listening did you do? Did your interaction with music change?
I made a list after the treatment of the music. I cried. Interestingly, there were some pieces that I never cried to before, or I was never interested in before. I don’t remember her name, but this old Cuban singer, Omara Portuondo, although I don’t like the style of music, corny pre-Revolution Cuban music, but the strength of the voice, the vocal struck me so much that I cried.
Who else made you cry?
Interestingly, the music that impacted me after the treatment was mainly vocal music: Maria Callas, Omara Portuondo, Japanese singer Mitsuko Koike, her voice is like an angel. Where does the title come from? Async as no synchronization. My previous album is Out of Noise, but this is Out of Sync. Out of sync means I’ve been thinking for a long time, most of music in the world is a simple thing, ethnic music, jazz, rock or classical. I wanted to make some music, anti-synchronized music. there are a few examples of async music, but not many. I’ve been trying for a long time to make…it’s not difficult to make async music, there’s no…center. Technically, it’s easy. But I wanted to make something async but still musical. It’s not easy.
When I first listened, I felt there’s an attention to what’s between the events, between piano, strings, events, this attention to negative space. As if you were interested in what’s between objects.
Yes, I think that’s the right impression. My first motivation was I just wanted to hear sounds of things, everyday things, even the sounds of instruments, musical instruments as things. For instance, the piano is a very systematically, industrially-designed thing, but they were a part of nature, taken from nature. Mankind artificially tuned and set the well-tempered scale, but the thing is if you leave the piano for a long time without a tuning, it will be out of tune. I thought that because the things in their earlier life were part of nature, are returning to what they were, going back to nature. Not fully, but slightly.
I decided to leave the pianos out of tune. I have two Steinways at home, an upright and a small piano. I decided not to tune the upright to see how it would sound. I got this idea that the instrument (noisy) I got this idea about instruments and nature from the big earthquake and tsunami from six years ago in japan. I saw many instruments drowned in the sea water and they couldn’t be used. I got a real physical pain from looking at those. As a musician, the instrument is part of my body. I went to see one of those pianos drowned in tsunami water in a high school in the affected area. It’s next to Fukushima. I went there months later and recorded that sound. Of course, it was totally out of tune but I thought it was beautiful. I thought this is ‘nature tuned it.’ I used some bits on the album.
I didn’t know how to start. It took a month to decided which direction I should go. I recorded these pianos. I went upstate to walk in a forest around architect Philip Johnson’s glass house in Connecticut. I moved to NYC in 1990. I was going to go back to Japan before I got cancer, but then I did treatments here, commuting everyday to Sloan-Kettering. I was fascinated and so pleased in New York to meet the nicest people. They’re amazing. I tried many things, then a month passed. My decision was to make a soundtrack for an imaginary Tarkovsky film, one that exists in my brain. I admire his films. I feel very close to his films. I’ve been watching his films since the 80s. He left us only seven films. The Mirror and The Sacrifice are my favorites, Mirror is most biographical. I used his father’s poem.
How did you come across this?
That recording of the poem was given to me by David Sylvian six years ago after the tsunami. We did a charity concert for Japan with John Zorn, Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, so I asked my friends to contribute something. So David sent me ten recordings of him reading poems.
So you’re imagining this Tarkovsky film, how did you move from there?
I was going to make a solo album in 2014, but I had to stop because of cancer. This time, I trashed all the ideas and sketches and everything except the first track “andata,” which I finished before the disease. The rest is all from scratch, from zero. Paul Bowles and other speakers.
What led you to that quote?
This could be the last album of mine, so I wanted to include whatever I wanted. That voice of Paul Bowles struck me so much, his impact for me when I was working on The Sheltering Sky, he was in the film in the beginning and end, narrating it himself. So deep and sad, but for a long time, I wanted to do something with that moment. I didn’t know what to do. Why not try to make music with it? I emailed Bertolucci to use that recording. (Bertolucci recited the line in Italian on the track) There’s these moments that seem to touch on the many aspects of your career. I’m not a person to look back into my past. I always want to do something new. But again, that’s true, there are many elements from the past in the music I like.
At one point in the early 90s, you had an album with Arto Lindsay, Youssou N’Dour and Brian Wilson all on the same song. What was it like to work with Brian Wilson?
Even for me, it sounds very random, there’s no coherence. But that’s what I am. It’s 100% true that I always worked with unique, talented people. That’s for sure. Brian Wilson was one of the most extraordinary. It was an unexpected experience for me. he loved what he did on my track in LA. We said goodbye and it was a pleasure. And the next day in New York he showed up with all of his family.
After that point, you moved away from pop. Are you done with pop?
Generally, I’m fed up with pop music. I’m more interested in experimental music, free minds. It led me back to my youth, music related to those art movements, Nam June Paik, Fluxus, I was so interested in that area, so I was getting back to my youth with this album. After I got to know Carsten and Christian, I thought to myself, I could forget about pop. There are many kinds of music than pop, like hip-hop and other areas. During the making of aysnc, I was so much into Japanese sound artist Akio Suzuki. He’s done many different things. One of his early pieces was a big concrete cube in a gallery and he pushed it so it made a sound of friction on the floor. It’s beauuuutiful music, I think. The other beautiful music was the composition number seven or five by La Monte Young’s 1960 #5: “Turn a butterfly (or any number of butterflies) loose in the performance area.” Before I finished the album, I made a CD and put it in the car and drove around the city two times. The most intriguing sound was helicopters. There’s big noises in NYC when you listen to music, so you shut the door or window. This one you can’t mask, it’s part of nature. I was really happy.
Do you think you’ll make another solo album?
I’ve got some ideas. The big dream is to make an opera for 2019 to have the premiere. I’m going to do two soundtracks this year. I’m trying to relax, but it’s hard.
Was working on the album healing for you?
I think so. I was not conscious about that. It helped my mind and body.
“Communicating with people was found to be like suffering judgment. In fact, it was almost impossible for me to dwell upon earthly matters, and equally impossible for me to bring the mind down to mundane thoughts and general conversations.”
“Life is a wonder of wonders, and to wonder/I dedicate myself.”