Perfect Sound Forever

Scott Booker

Image from Scott's MySpace page

Interview by Diane Roka
(December 2009)

No matter what city I visit, I always try to hit a little record store. I love getting in conversations with the guy behind the counter. He usually has some arcane musical tidbits, and delights in telling me all about them. He gets a kick out of finding obscure stuff I might like. He likes to make that connection.

Talking to Scott Booker is like that. He actually did work in record stores, around the time that he became friends with Wayne Coyne and members of The Flaming Lips. He's been their manager since 1990, and now he's also the CEO of the revolutionary new Academy of Contemporary Music At the University of Central Oklahoma. The school just opened this fall, and Scott is having a blast coming up with innovative programs that mix music education with industry knowledge, and inviting his musician friends from around the world to get involved- making the connections.

When I got Scott on the phone, it was 10AM on a Friday and he was reaching for his first shot of morning caffeine in a Diet Coke with Splenda. We chatted about Lambchop, Cheetah Chrome and Please Kill Me, and then discovered a shared fascination with the Laurel Canyon music scene in the late Sixties and early Seventies.

SB: I've actually become really fascinated with the whole Laurel Canyon thing. I mean, I ran into Jackson Browne. I was flying to Barcelona because the Lips were opening for Coldplay... and, so I don't know if you know, but I still manage The Flaming Lips...

PSF: Yeah, I was pretty sure.

SB: ... and a couple of other bands. So, I was flying out there I flew out there by myself, and got off the plane. And there's Jackson Browne. And I just thought, "Wow. That's too weird. I can't not go up and say something to him." And I went up and I was like, "Hey, I heard you were just in Oklahoma." And he's like, "Yeah!" And I said, "I heard you gave a shout-out to The Flaming Lips, and I just wanted to say hi, because I'm the manager of the Lips, and I thought that was really cool."

And he was great. And it was him and his girlfriend for many, many years and we just started talking. And he's like, "Well, we have an apartment here --why don't you give us a shout, and maybe we'll all go have dinner or something?"

So, we ended up having dinner with Jackson and his girlfriend, and two or three of their other friends, and Wayne and his wife Michelle and me. And it was just great, you know. And then he came to see the band at the Coldplay show, and it was so crazily packed there were 64,000 people there that they couldn't get in on time. And he felt bad about it, but I was like, 'don't worry about it, we'll be back.'

But, I felt like I kind of made a new friend, you know? It was really cool. And I told him about the school, and I completely forgot that one of the songs that you know, at the school, there's a Performance and a Production path, and eventually there'll be a Music Business path. But in the Performance path, what we do at the beginning of the semester we put 'em all in bands. And we decide what bands they're in. And then at the beginning of the week, they're given a song that they have to learn. And at the end of the week, their band performs it.

So, for instance, last week was Feist, "I Feel it All." The week before was "Heroes" by David Bowie. The week before that was "Someday" by The Strokes. This week, because we didn't have classes on Monday, which is the day that we tell 'em what the song is going to be and show they how to play it, we just were like, "You guys can pick whatever song you want to play on Friday." So, I'm curious to see what they do.

But, the last song of the semester is "Take it Easy", which of course is an Eagles song, but Jackson wrote it. And so when I saw him at the Coldplay show, I was just like "Maybe you should try and come up that week, or something." He said, "Well, I'll try", you know. But he did tell me that he would come to the school and stuff. So, I'm pretty excited about that. I think that'd be great.

PSF: It seems like he'd have a good temperament with the kids, too.

SB: He's a mellow, sweet guy that cares.

PSF: Absolutely.

SB: And that's really what it comes down to is caring. Whether it's... education might not be your thing. But just caring about anything opens the door for people to be receptive. And you can tell immediately with Jackson Browne that he cares.

And, that's how the Lips are. That's how our staff and everything... we care. It's a great thing.

PSF: When I was doing a little bit of research, reading some of the articles that have come out about the school, it described getting the kids together and having them work on something. And, it reminded me of something I'd heard about Miles Copeland's retreat. I think it's in a castle in France. He gets musicians together and just says, "You're going to collaborate on something." You know, here's a group. And, I think in their case, they were actually writing. It would be somebody like a Carole King, and Maia Sharp, and just that idea of not over-thinking things. Just getting together, working, and seeing what you come up with. And the process being sometimes more important than the product.

And, it made me think, "I wonder if they can do something like that there, too." Because just the whole songwriting aspect, and learning how to collaborate that way, I think is important.

SB: Well, absolutely. I mean, I think learning to work with other people is key to any career, really. But, you know, particularly so with the musicians or the producers, or whatever that we're kickin' out of here. I mean, that's what they have to learn to do.

And, you know, this is a real degree. So, one of the other things that I'm making them take is Speech...

PSF: Yeah, I saw that.

SB: ... 'cause I fell like there's no point in being able to stand in front of 50,000 people if you can't also talk to a group of ten. So, I'm excited about that too.

PSF: It's funny, I went to art school it was art, music, theater, dance. But, we were lucky because we were close enough to New York that we had a lot of famous artists that would come in and teach. And, sometimes the most talented artists weren't the best teachers. And, I wondered, because it is so exciting that you're able to have access to the Lips, and other famous musicians that could come in, but I wondered about their teaching abilities. Do they sort of get a crash course, or is there somebody else in the room that's kind of guiding the class, or... ?

SB: Well, with the artists like that, who really aren't our faculty or anything, with the Master Classes, what I plan on doing is sitting them down in front of the whole student body, and just kind of interviewing them. And him and me, or her and me, or whomever, you know sitting down with me and talking to me about their career and what they've done.

And I'd probably be asking or not probably, I will be asking things that you probably wouldn't. You're going to be asking them about their art and ideas behind that. I'm going to be talking a lot about their business and how they do collaborate with other people in the band. And, aspects that probably aren't as interesting to people that aren't part of this music world, or want to be part of it.

So, I'm really planning on gearing things specifically towards that. And sometimes, just the history of what someone did and how they got to where they're at, is vital for these kids to understand. Because, a lot of them think literally you put on a guitar, and once you learn how to sing and play, you just become a rock star. And, as we all know, it's not anywhere as simple as that.

I mean, there are occasions where someone gets "discovered", you know, in quotation marks. But, it's rare. Usually bands fight for a very long time to get noticed, and then once they're noticed, that's when people determine whether they like 'em or not.

So, it's a double whammy in a way of fighting just to have people pay attention. And then, once they pay attention, that's when it gets hard, because then the public at large decides whether they like it or not.

PSF: Right.

SB: And that can be brutal too. So, it's a difficult process. But, so that's part of what I want to do with the Master Class. And then, depending on what area of expertise the person is that we're dealing with, I want to have a smaller class that they go in. And, like, if you're a guitar player, you go in, and maybe you don't even have to talk. Maybe you just get up there and you play something, and then let the kids ask questions as to how you did it.

I want it to be very open and very comfortable. With the Production side, I've got a guy named Greg Kurstin coming in, who is part of a band called The Bird and The Bee, and he's also in Geggy Tah. And he's also a songwriter. He's written songs with a bunch of stuff for Lily Allen and Kylie Minogue I think he's worked on Britney Spear's stuff. I mean, just a little bit of everything. He co-wrote a song with the Lips, even.

And, he is coming here and I'll do the interview thing with him, but then I really want him to do a specific songwriting class with the Performance students, and then I want him to do a production class with the Production students. And, I think that'll be really great.

And, someone like Steven [Drozd] from the Lips, or Wayne or Michael [Ivins] or whomever, I mean, I'll just kind of talk to them and be like, "what do you want to talk to them about?" And, I mean, what I was thinking of with Wayne might be very interesting, is how something that artists, you know, young bands or whatever, don't think about is how much the visual aspect of the band is key to the success of it.

And, one of the great things about Wayne that people know in the back of their heads, but they don't really think about too much, is how Wayne has visually guided this band from moment one.

And, I think that would be a great thing to talk to him about in front of the students, instead of "How do you feel singing in front of 50,000 people?" Or, "How did you write that song?"

I mean, you can hear those stories over and over. But I guarantee you, no one's ever sat down with Wayne and said, "Let's talk about the art you've done." And why you've made specific album covers and designed videos or whatever for songs, and what process goes through your mind doing that? I think that'd be a great thing for the kids to do.

PSF: Absolutely. And it's funny that you say that, because I was online last night, and I was just looking at some different interviews that he'd done, and it really took me back. I hadn't seen some of the photos recently from their live shows, but they really are like theatrical performances. It's like what David Bowie used to do, and the Rolling Stones still do to a certain extent where there's a set. It's elaborate.

SB: Well, exactly. You know, even the Dead, or whomever. I mean, it's like, the artist we're drawn to on a live basis are the ones who try a little bit harder.

PSF: Yeah, like PJ Harvey. I mean, it can be really well done and not just the video in back of somebody. Props and bloody head wounds (laughs).

SB: There's a reason that they call it a show. I mean, I'm going to a show. And, you know, so you want to see something.

PSF: It just reminded me, talking about Wayne's visual sense. Wasn't there a traveling exhibit of Flaming Lips album covers?

SB: Well, I know that in the show his wife had photos that she would have taken over the years of the band and stuff like that, and that's been traveling around a little bit. But, nothing really. I mean, Wayne is pretty much, when he makes art, it's for a specific reason. And there really hasn't been any specific art show around that. Maybe one day, if he ever sat still long enough. Most of his art he's given away, actually. I don't know who has most of it. I've got the cover the front and back cover -- to the Yoshimi album. I know Steven has the Mystics record. But some of the EPs and things like that he's given to people at Warner Brothers or just friends or road crew. You know, he'll just give it away.

PSF: Well, you know, now that I'm thinking it through, it was actually Sonic Youth that's doing that.

SB: Really?

PSF: Yeah they're getting something together. The Richard Prince's Nurse cover, and stuff like that that's what's traveling. But, for some reason I connect The Flaming Lips with Sonic Youth in that way.

SB: Well, no I agree. And Sonic Youth have always been close to our hearts and minds in how to do things. And, you know, I mean, I think that bands like the Lips and Sonic Youth are key to how the school even came about, and we could help make it happen. I mean, these are people with the whole DIY, doin' it for yourself, and are doing it yourself. And that effort, and being raised in that...

I mean, I started working in record stores when I was 15 I'm 44 now. So I'm quickly reaching that 30 years of working in the music industry, because I count working at the record store as working in the music industry. And, you know, that's where I met The Flaming Lips. And saw the work ethic of bands like them, and the Sonic Youths of the world, who, even though the world wasn't embracing them yet, they didn't care.

And they make the effort, and made the art, regardless. And then the world slowly accepted them either by becoming stranger as a whole, or maybe they just became more familiar with this kind of art.

That's kind of how the school came about, in a way, was this same kind of thing. I mean, the idea of rock n' roll, and music like the being accepted by the masses as a whole and the people that could make a decision about whether a university should offer these kind of courses.

Well, we've reached this kind of tipping point, where the people who make those decisions actually grew up with rock n' roll. Whereas, even as little as ten years ago, there were guys who grew up with jazz and Big Band, and so the idea of doing something on an academic, collegiate, university level with something like this was pretty much impossible.

But we've reached this point in time, where the idea of someone teaching it, at a university level but also the idea that these students can make a living doing it, has come to fruition to the point where it allowed a school like this to happen.

I mean, even for the President of the university to trust me, the guy who manages The Flaming Lips, to do this, speaks a great deal to just the change in how people are willing to be open-minded when it comes to music and ideas and stuff.

See Part II of the Scott Booker interview

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