PM in 1973
'I Can't NOT Make Music'
Interview by Robert Pally
Pete McCabe, whose music was once described as 'Hippy cosmic country,' released one fine album called The Man Who Ate the Plant in 1973 and recorded a master for a second album that was never released. Over 35 years later, he finally released another album called Homeward. In this interview, McCabe talks about why he dropped out of college, what quality a song must have for him, his axe the banjo, how the song “Suicide" came together, and of course, recording The Man Who Ate the Plant.
PSF: Do you come out of a musical family?
PM: Neither of my parents were very musical. My dad took some piano lessons and for a time we had a Baby Grand. My grandfather was an Irish tenor as a young man and my grandmother played piano. My other grandfather played a little guitar and harmonica, and my uncle played the violin. None of my sisters showed much more than a passing interest in the piano.
PSF: Do you remember the first song you liked?
PM: When staying with my grandparents, I enjoyed their choral recordings of Stephen Foster songs, "Old Folks at Home," "Beautiful Dreamer," etc. The Irish song "Danny Boy" was one of my earliest favourites and remains so to this day. You can see that these are all classic "tear jerkers." I always was attracted to the emotional aspects of songs rather than the perky, rhythmic side of things. This becomes difficult when compiling tunes for an album. I usually need to really apply myself to write up tempo material. In seventh and eight grade junior high singing classes, I really became aware of the joys of music. "It's Almost Like Being in Love" was the first song that I noticed was about love, and "The Sound of Music" in choir sure had some interesting chords. It was during this time in the early sixties that the folk music boom exploded. When I heard Peter, Paul & Mary do "Blowin' in the Wind," I knew I had to join my friends and learn how to play a stringed instrument.
PSF: What was the first song you wrote?
PM: In the Timbermen, my junior high folk quartet in which I played tenor banjo (having graduated from ukulele), I collaborated with my guitar playing pals to write a quasi-American folk ballad about miners dying underground. It was really a cross between "Cumberland Mine Disaster" and "Duke of Earl"--pretty bad, but the best our school could offer. Continuing with the banjo in high school, I wrote "Amnesia Blues" (which I may include on the next CD) and "The Man Who Ate the Plant," which became the title tune on my 1973 album for Tumbleweed Records.
PSF: What was the first instrument you learned and why?
PM: I had taken some piano lessons as a kid but at the time I was uninspired. It was really the folk boom which lead to the ukulele (not very folky, but cheap) and then, when a family friend offered a tenor banjo for a modest sum, the banjo became my axe. Of course, the tenor banjo was made for 1920s jazz bands, not folk music. But what did I know? Later in high school, I actually joined a Dixieland band for a while. The guitar and piano followed.
PSF: What made you want to become a musician?
PM: I never consciously decided to become a musician. I just liked music. And being creative, I found I enjoyed writing songs. At the Denver Folklore Center, I found a stage where I could get up and play them for people. That was kinda fun! My study of chords in my banjo book along with choir and music theory in high school got me further and further into the obsessive work of song writing. And the Beatles really inspired me to explore musical possibilities. I got less into the banjo and more into guitar and piano.
PSF: Music changed your life by...?
PM: From early on, I showed a talent in art, and took studio art classes in college. But music became more and more important to me. When I look at all my accomplishments in life, I come to the conclusion that music is the thing I can best offer to the world. Of course, very few people have heard it (my music), but it makes me feel good that I have made something of value. I was meant to write songs, I guess. Recording the last CD was a meaningful endeavour. I love recording!
PSF: Can you tell me the story how your first album came together?
PM: When I used to play at the Denver Folklore Center, an ABC records local promotion man, Robb Kunkel, heard me play and contacted me. He asked if I would like to record my songs and I told him I would be quite interested. He was a musician and had produced a Danny Holien 45 single on his own label (Danny would later be one of Tumbleweed's artists). Denver and Boulder, Colorado were becoming a popular place to 'drop out' into the 'natural world'--where hippies could enjoy life with only the fear that fights with cowboys might disturb their 'trip.' Larry Ray and Bill Szymczyk were a record exec for ABC in Hollywood and ace producer respectively who had heard about the 'Rocky Mountain High' and the Denver scene and thought they could escape earthquake-prone L.A. and maybe exploit the music possibilities in Colorado. On a scouting trip there, they enlisted Robb to find a grand old house near downtown Denver to house their new venture, Tumbleweed Records. I had become good friends with Robb and with his help had made some home demos of some of my songs. I was distinctly "off the wall" both as a writer and a performer, but so were the playlists of "underground" FM radio at that time. Eclectic was the flavour of the day in the early 1970’s. I was one of several artists (including himself) that Robb Kunkel brought to the attention of Ray and Szymczyk. Soon I, Robb, Danny, Dewie Terry and others were signed to Denver's first major record label. The label was financed through Famous Music/Paramount with a budget of a million dollars. I immediately dropped out of college, was issued a new guitar and a nice advance against royalties and began preparing for my Hollywood recording sessions. I was told to learn how to play the songs without singing to optimize the multi-track recording method. That was tricky.
Also, I would be playing with studio musicians. I had always played solo. Playing with others, particularly a drummer would be a new and scary experience. I was excited that there would be strings and horns added by Jimmie Haskell who had done such great work with Simon and Garfield and others. I was pretty green and had hardly ever been outside of Denver, so it was to be a major undertaking. I was flown to L.A. twice to record basic tracks and (add) sweetening at the Record Plant. I worked with legendary session cats (I didn't really know their credentials at the time and kept pretty quiet since I was pretty intimidated) like Larry Knechtel, Jim Keltner, Chuck Rainey, Louie Shelton, Buddy Emmons and Plas Johnson. I was kinda confused by the process but put my faith in Szymczyk and his assistant Allan Blazek. The whole thing was conducted in a haze of pot smoke (except for when the orchestral players came in). Later, additional tracking and mixing was done at Caribou Ranch (which shortly after burned down) in the Colorado Rockies and at the Hit Factory in New York City. The album was released in 1973 just as the money ran out and Tumbleweed was disbanding.
It was a wonderful experience that gave way to many years of bussing tables. It wasn't until I moved to L.A. around 1976 to try to renew my musical career that I got into being a commercial artist as a means of making money. My short stint as a professional musician was not to be reinstated. I now make music because I can't NOT make music.
PSF: What do you think about your first album “The Man Who Ate the Plant" today?
PM: I am very proud of the album. I do think that my vocals have improved greatly since then. I believe the songs hold up very well. Though many of my folky friends at the time felt it was over produced, I like the production and arrangements. I guess I am thought of as being kind of a psychedelic artist. I seem to have fit into that category--my songs have never been commercial. In all, considering how inexperienced I was to recording, the result is very professional. I think it still stands as a unique artefact of the '70’s.
PSF: Why did you call it “The man who ate the plant"?
PM: "The Man Who Ate the Plant" was the name of one of the tracks that had a unique ring to it. We picked it as a title since we couldn't think of anything else.
PSF: Which is your favourite song from the album?
PM: I think "Lullaby" is the most successful arrangement. I also very much like "The Experiment."
PM in 1976
PSF: How came the song “Suicide" together?
PM: This was written on my upright piano in my Capitol Hill apartment in Denver. As one who was never very successful with the ladies, I was depressed to see everyone walking around in love while I played the blues. I asked Jimmie Haskell to arrange it with a big band. Plas Johnson played a nice sax solo. It took Keltner just a few minutes to work out the syncopation during the instrumental break. My voice cracked unexpectedly but in a fun way, going up to a falsetto on the last chorus.
PSF: What inspires you to write music?
PM: Sometimes a chord progression will suggest a mood that dictates a certain direction for a lyric. Lately, I have been writing lyrics first before I come up with the music. A well known phrase might come to mind that gets my imagination going. I try to keep an original point of view and often a sense of humour in my words and music. Sometimes, experiences I've had can suggest a song. I never know when a song might come up. Occasionally, I 'assign' myself something to write about. Movies have also been an inspiration.
PSF: What kind of qualities must a song have for you?
PM: I really like my lyrics to make sense and to read well on the page. I like them to be clear even if the song is fanciful. I also like a certain complexity to the harmony in a song. Hopefully, the song has something relatively original to say. I am happy if my songs are nearly as good as anything the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman or Stephen Sondheim might write.
PSF: What did you do musically after The Man Who Ate the Plant?
PM: I recorded a master tape of a second album in 1976 that was not picked up by any buyers. It was recorded at Applewood Studios outside of Denver. I recorded 3 songs on a folk compilation for Biscuit City Records in Denver. Of course, I recorded many simple demos over the years and some high quality ones six or seven years ago at Sonora Sound in Atwater, California. Homeward, recorded at home and with help from producers and musicians over the Web from the U.S. and abroad, was completed at the end of the year in 2011.
PSF: What made you release another album after such a long time?
PM: I had continued to write songs over the years since Plant and always loved recording. I have done very little performing in public, but a couple years ago I performed on a small stage here in L.A. and was videoed by a friend who posted me on the Web. I believe it was there that Todd Dillingham, a recording artist and Web DJ saw me and contacted me. He has been a great fan of The Man Who Ate the Plant since its release and asked if I had anything new he might play on his show.
He also requested that I overdub a banjo part on a psychedelic tune of his. That led me to purchase a USB microphone. After I completed his tracks (my first ever effort at home recording), he suggested that I record new stuff that he might play at his show. His enthusiasm and my newfound interest in recording ultimately resulted in my first album in 40 years! Listening to Todd's broadcasts made me become aware of a fantastic musician and arranger Wim Oudijk. Wim heard my tunes and soon was arranging and producing them gratis! I also around this time got back in touch with an old friend, Rob Wallace who contributed engineering and producing skills to the project. And Tom Virtue, one of my original folk group members had produced a tune at Applewood that I revised for the album. Other friends--new and old-- added their talents. It really came out well. The enthusiasm of my wife, Diane, Robb Kunkel and Todd Dillingham saw me through the year long project.
PSF: You come out of Denver. How did you fit into the music scene there?
PM: The Denver Scene in the sixties and seventies was generally very folky and bluegrass. I never quite fit in with that group, but I was part of it. I was a bit more Tin Pan Alley (in my own weird way). At the time of my record, Joe Walsh was starting to rock it up in the mountains, though. I never cared for John Denver.
PSF: How do you make a living?
PM: After being laid off from my graphic artist job (over 20 years for one company... oops, I made too much money), I am currently a teacher's aide, working with special education students at Santa Monica High School. I live in Venice with my wife, dogs and cat and continue to write and record songs.
PSF: What musical plans to you have for the future?
PM: I am currently working on another CD.
For more about Pete, see his website and the Disco Fair website
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