I teach the music of David Lanz more than that of any other composer, past or present. I saw him in his first Bay Area concert performance back in about 1989 at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, and have taken students to see him perform several times since then. I have also interviewed him for the newsletter several times. We did a phone interview for Wind and Wire magazine the end of August, and I decided to use a less-formal version of the interview here. I’ll run David’s biography in either the December or January issue, depending on how much time I have. Also known for his humanitarian projects and gentle sense of humor, David’s career has been going through some major changes. As usual, David had some big surprises!
KP: You wrote your first piece at the age of ten, which was a boogie-woogie piece; you started performing professionally with rock bands at fourteen. When did you start performing solo piano, and when did you start performing your own compositions?
Lanz: My first real solo piano performance was around 1986 - a year or two before I released “Cristofori’s Dream”. At that point, everything kind of came to a head. Radio was taking a lot of chances, and they really jumped on that record. So in 1986-87, I graduated from piano bars, and started being asked to perform small concerts. At first I did concerts in people’s homes. It alleviated a lot of expenses since I could do one or two shows, and 40 or 50 people would show up. It was fun, and I imagine that’s how it was back in the classical days. At the time, there were a number of new age bookshops and such where people were buying my music, and these stores also invited me to come and perform. It escalated from there into larger venues and more traditional kinds of theaters.
KP: Did you do much performing when you put out “Natural States” and “Desert Vision”?
Lanz: Initially, we performed as a trio. I played piano, Paul Speer played guitar, and Paul’s brother, Neal, was on drums. The primary tracks were played live, but the bass and some of the synth tracks were on tape. “Natural States” and “Desert Vision” were soundtracks to videos, so we played live in synch with the video with a couple of televisions and a big screen behind the band. It was our vision to do this environmental kind of rock presentation, but with the technology of the time, it was difficult to project the image so it didn’t get washed out. We played locally and did a couple of festivals on the west coast, but right about the time we started to perform, “Cristofori’s Dream” came out. All of a sudden, people started calling me, and they didn’t want the band - they just wanted the piano guy. It was a lot easier to tour and perform without a band, and I didn’t have to worry about the visual element of the performance. It kind of forced my hand once I got onstage with nothing. All I had was myself, my personality, and a few corny jokes, so I built on that.
KP: What’s been happening the past few years?
Lanz: I’ve made quite a few changes, starting with management. I was able able to align myself with the manager that I wanted from the beginning, back in the 80’s. It’s a funny story - Bill Leopold is very well-known in the industry; he discovered Melissa Etheridge and has taken her into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Before that, he worked with numerous other people, and before that, he was my next-door neighbor when I was seven years old! It was fun to finally get back together, and with Bill’s expertise I’ve been able to make some other changes. I’ve come to the end of my recording period with Narada, which began in 1983. Despite a generous offer to re-sign with Narada, I’ve decided to go with Philips/Polygram. Philips is known more as a classical label, and they have world-wide distribution. It has always been my biggest dream as an artist to do things on a universal level, so I think it’s a really good match with Philips.
KP: Is Philips giving you creative freedom?
Lanz: Yes. Chris James, the president of Polygram is a fan of mine. He’s also the keyboard player for ValGardena. Chris was very instrumental in making this deal happen. They really like what I’ve done, and basically, I have creative control. I have this disco album I want to do, you know! (laughs) I also changed producers, which was another big change. Paul Speer and I worked together for many years, but our professional relationship is up in the air at the moment. I haven’t been touring, so I’ve sort of been left to my own devices, and I have another album ready to record. The other thing is that my wife told me to get a hobby, so a few years ago I started playing drums. I’ve been doing that, and this summer I backed Pat Boone on drums!
KP: Pat Boone????
Most of what we did was his early rock and roll stuff, which was really fun. We did a benefit concert up here, and Pat was great! He was a real prince - a wonderful man.
Anyway, I’ve been playing drums and producing other people’s material, and I’ve been doing a lot of behind the scenes kinds of things. I just did a big workshop in Minneapolis based on the material in my instructional video, and there were close to a thousand piano students and teachers. I’ve had a phenomenal response from people like yourself who are using my music with their students. I had no idea that would happen when I started putting the printed music out. What is satisfying for me is that my music is published by Hal Leonard, who also publishes John Tesh’s and Yanni’s music - I’m outselling those guys!
KP: Why do you think that is?
Lanz: For me, the acid test is when you write a piece of music, does it sound good on only one instrument? If it does, then it should be able to support whatever kind of production you put on top of it.
KP: In my own experience in teaching your music, the kids love it because it’s contemporary and it’s fun, and most of it is easier to play than it sounds.
Lanz: I think it is. That was one of the things I tried to point out in my video and when I did this workshop with the students and teachers. I said, “Look - in any of my songs, there are really only a couple of rhythm and melodic patterns and chord sequences.There are variations, but if you go through a song, especially one of the simpler ones, if you can identify the different patterns that get repeated, the song all of a sudden starts to demystify itself. Then, if it’s eight pages of music, it becomes a lot less intimidating.
KP: It’s great stuff! I can’t wait until another book comes out!
Lanz: We’re working on a couple of books.
KP: What made you decide to do “Songs From an English Garden”, which is mostly instrumental arrangements of British hits from the 60’s?
Lanz: When I did the album, I was trying to do two things. I felt that paying tribute to that era was a way of accomplishing the first major objective, which was to create an album that was commercial, and also one that was based primarily on material that was already written to complete my recording contract. The concept was in two parts. The first was to make a commercial record, and it’s already doing what we wanted it to do by getting a lot of radio air-play. And, two, we wanted to reach out to a broader audience without alienating people by doing cover songs. We’re having a tremendous response with this record, and I’m getting radio attention that I’ve never gotten before.
KP: Isn’t that a little frustrating?
Lanz: It’s a way to introduce myself, and then the next time we go out, people will know who we are. It’s just the way it is. I don’t want to go as far as what John Tesh and Yanni are doing by bringing in singers and huge productions. All of a sudden you’re just the guy playing the piano, and it takes the focus off your music. On my next album, I’m delving back into my classical roots. There’s a 20-minute song-cycle for piano and orchestra that’s very beautiful, and I think that will be a lot meatier.
KP: I’m glad to hear that!
There’s a method to my madness! Basically, it’s the same thing I did when I recorded “Cristofori’s Dream”. I had one cover song on there, “A Whiter Shade of Pale,, which became the reason a lot of people bought the album - they really liked that version of the song. It was a bridge. It made it an easy jump from music that they knew to my own compositions. Unfortunately, the term “new age” has created a lot of confusion. It is the only genre of music that has a term that is also relatable to a spiritual or religious experience, and people get really confused - a lot of fear comes up. After listening to a lot of pretty hard-core new age music, I think the only thing in common with my music is that it might evoke peaceful feelings or images. It’s always been a bit of a struggle to say, “Hey, look - just take this music only on its own merits, not on this term that people put on it”. I don’t know how many people realize it, but in the early 80’s, it was the major labels that got together and decided to call this music “new age” in terms of marketing because they thought it sounded like “new wave”. They didn’t know what “new age” meant. At the turn of this century, people were talking about the new age and a point in the next millennium where, based on spiritual predictions, there would be a world where people would be much more peaceful. I immersed myself in quite a bit of new age philosophy, and I understand what much of it is, but it has spun off into so many cults and things.
Lanz: What do you think of “Songs From an English Garden”?
KP: It’s very enjoyable, but don’t think it’s your best album. For me, it’s a little too light, but I love “London Blue.”
Lanz: The songs really only have as much depth as the original inspiration that created them, you know? But that was the idea - to create something light. It’s not supposed to be a heavy record, but when you hear my next album, I think you’ll really enjoy it! With “English Garden,” I was trying to create something for radio. I think the album turned out great, but I’m looking at it more from a technical point of view. There were several excellent musicians.
KP: How did you get Herb Alpert?
Lanz: I always loved The Tijuana Brass, and “The Lonely Bull” was one of the first songs I learned on the clarinet in the eighth grade. My new producer, Ed Thacker, had worked with Herb on another project, so we were able to get past the gatekeepers. You don’t usually get past people’s “gatekeepers” unless they know you already or there is some sort of connection. Herb really liked the song “Ferry Across the Mersey,” so he worked with us on that cut. With Ed’s contacts, we were able to bring in Tony Levin, Peter Gabriel’s bass player, and Roy Bittan, who has been with Springsteen for years. All of us are about the same age, so the concept was fun, and I had a great time doing it because it was so lighthearted. One of the statements that I was trying to make was that the way I write a lot of my music was influenced by that era. People were starting to take pop music and move into using more of a classical approach - especially Lennon and McCartney. That era of music was when songwriters really started to exercise their muscle. Up until then it was Elvis and Fabian, and people were writing songs in back rooms. They weren’t performing. They were letting teen idols do all the stuff. And then Lennon and McCartney came along, and it was a different ballgame.
KP: Especially once they got past all the teenage girls screaming.
Lanz: Exactly. They were all of a sudden able to get into their craft. Plus, it helps if you’re a genius for starters. That was part of my process. I went through a lot of that kind of material and read books and got a huge collection of the British Invasion and listened to hours and hours of it to try to understand it and internalize the whole experience. I realize that about 75% of the music that came out during that time was crap. That’s true of any time. You can usually squeeze down the best of any era’s music to a couple of records. The rest is either really derivative or not even worth listening to.
KP: One of the things that I thought was fun was that I remembered the words to most of the songs.
Lanz: I tell people I created a private karaoke album! We can all sit in our cars and sing the wrong verse, and no one cares!
KP: You are Executive Producer for Libretto Records. What is that about?
Lanz: I was playing drums at a jazz gig, and I met a friend who is a writer and the editor of a book called “The Messengers.” “Messengers” ended up being a “best seller,” but prior to its nationwide success, it was very successful in Seattle. I’d seen billboards for the book, and my friend was fascinated with it and told me about it. It’s based on true experiences with angels. I told my friend that this might be a fun book to do a soundtrack to. There have been a number books that have been released with “soundtracks” like The Celestine Prophecy and, more recently, Conversations With God. We actually approached the author of Conversations, but Windham Hill beat us to the punch. This has happened a number of times in my career, so I figure that’s a good affirmation that we are on the right track! Anyway, some of these self-help books and literature can create another reality for you. Music is a nice way to create an ancillary product to reflect the information or the feeling that you might get while reading that book.
KP: Did you play on “The Messengers”?
Lanz: I got in touch with the authors, who live fairly close to me in Portland, Oregon, and after speaking to one of them, I was inspired and started writing music. There will be music on my next album that was inspired by this whole experience, but because of politics, which loom heavily in the music business, I wasn’t able to do anything but be executive producer. That process was great, though. I was given a huge catalog of music from Polygram, and I went through and selected an album’s worth of material that I felt worked, at least in an impressionistic way, to support the information and the effect that this book had on me - and that I thought it might have on other people. There are a couple of really nice harp pieces that I thought were very angelic, and a really beautiful choral piece by Rachmaninoff. There are also three pieces by Secret Garden. The half instrumental and half choral, all very soft. I thought the name “Libretto Records” would give people a good idea of what the label was going to be about.
KP: Is Libretto going to do mostly “soundtrack” recordings?
Lanz: That’s where we started, but we don’t know how it’s going to evolve. Right now I’m trying to trace down Sherman Alexi, the man who wrote “Smoke Signals.” He’s a Native American and a great writer who lives up here, and he’s written a couple of books of poetry. He grew up on reservations, and the images are kind of dark, but humorous and very human. I thought it would be great to create a collection of Native American music, played by Indians (not white guys trying to sound like Indians!) - something that would be reflective of the Native American experience. We’re also looking at people who do imaginative cookbooks. There are a pair of women - I think they’re called The Chili Sisters or something. The Chili something - the Red Pepper Girls? Anyway, they do real spicy kind of food, so an album of salsa music or Latino-type music would be fun. Music to cook by. I think people find music and use it in their lives all the time anyway, so this is a way to help them orchestrate their experiences. Music to live by - that’s what Libretto is all about.
KP: What are some of your other projects?
Lanz: Matthew Fisher, the organist from Procol Harum, has become a good friend of mine, and wants me to collaborate with him on arranging a couple of Bach’s pieces, so we’ll see what happens with that. I’m sure it’s not a great commercial idea, but it really feeds the musical soul to be able to tap into classical composers’ music. They were so deep! I just don’t think that beautiful music is ever going to be commercially popular. It never has been, really. In the long term, it might way-outsell most pop artists, but it’s going to take 400 years to do it! If a classical CD sells 5000 copies, it is considered successful. People’s attention spans are so different from the past three centuries - we’re too fast-paced. We can’t sit down and just listen to a whole Beethoven symphony.The average person is out of there in 30 seconds.
KP: Music, for the most part, has really taken a subsidiary role.
Lanz: Right. One of my goals as a composer is to say, “Okay, I have a pop kind of sensibility anyway, so maybe I can craft some music that has the intention of being beautiful, but try to do it in a short period of time. People can have a good experience, but not get anxious because they have to go do something else.” That’s a sad state off affairs! Yeah, but it’s just the way it is. The people who do the business side of things - they have to weigh all of these things out.
KP: How’s the instructional video doing?
Lanz: I hear it’s doing very well! I don’t know what kind of promotion people do for things like that, but the people in music stores say it’s been a steady seller. I was trying to make something that was accessible to students. I didn’t realize how much information I had collected over the years, because I’m pretty-much self-taught. I’ve had a few students, but I can see when I start teaching something that their eyes sometimes roll to the back of their heads because I start going too deep. It took me a long time to distill things down and to not try to teach everything at once.
KP: You talk about that inner voice that trips us all up when we perform. It’s hard to believe you experience stage fright!
Lanz: “Here it comes! Just like I thought! I knew something bad was going to happen!” Well you visualized it, you pictured it, you brought it into existence. Voila! You’re a magician and you didn’t even know it! I’ve done a lot of self-hypnosis, which is really just active meditation. I had severe stage fright, and I couldn’t talk. Believe it or not!
KP: You always look so relaxed onstage!
Lanz: I get there! As you know, getting onstage is not always the most relaxing thing to do!
KP: I can’t do it! I’ll play for recitals, but I suffer!
Lanz: Yeah, but I think you’d find that if you were in a situation where you needed to give a whole performance, you’d probably find that you felt awful for the first part, but once you got used to the water, so to speak, they’d probably have to drag you off.
KP: Maybe. Playing just one song is just one shot at it.
Lanz: I’m usually pretty uptight for the first 5-10 minutes, but I have enough experience with performing that I at least know how to look relaxed. I’m trying to create that image so I can fall into it at some point, but it’s mostly joy. I really enjoy performing.
KP: Does telling some of the stories and jokes make it easier to relax?
Lanz: That helps. I think I really started using humor as a defense. First, I realized that when people were laughing, they were more relaxed, but then, more than that, for myself, I found that when people were laughing, I got more relaxed, too. This isn’t brain surgery, you know! We’re here to have a good time! The best way to entertain people is for me to be relaxed and feel good about myself, and then you’re going to be able to be spontaneous and in the moment, and take advantage of whatever happens, and have a good time. I think that’s an element that’s missing in a lot of musical performances.
Discography - all on Narada
“Natural States” with Paul Speer (1985)
“Solstice” with Michael Jones (1985)
“Woodlands” with Tingstad and Rumbel (1987)
“Desert Vision” with Paul Speer (1987)
“Cristofori’s Dream” (1988)
“Skyline Firedance” (1990)
“Return to the Heart” (1991)
“Bridge of Dreams” with Paul Speer (1993)
“Christmas Eve” (1994)
“Convergence” with David Arkenstone (1996)
“Sacred Road” (1996)
“Songs From An English Garden” (1998)
For more information about David, check out his website
or his many reviews and interviews on his Artist Page
here on MainlyPiano.com