TOM SCHOLZ & BRAD DELP
With three multi-million selling albums in a row, Tom Scholz, the composer and multi-instrumentalist leader of Boston, and his trusty singer, Brad Delp, have more in common with the tortoise of the fable than with any other legendary hit-making conglomerates around. As devoted fans who jubilantly celebrated the release of Third Stage a couple of years ago, after a six-year layoff, will learn from this interview, all three Boston albums of first takes couldn't have happened any faster. We sat down with Tom and Brad to find out which might come first, the next Boston Lp, or the millennium.
Tell me about the evolution of the band.
BRAD: I met Tom around 1970. About two weeks after I met him, the band had made plans to go into a local 8-track studio to do a demo. So I went in with them and one of the first songs we did was called "Ninety Days," which later turned into "More Than a Feeling." Another song that they'd already recorded once and we re-recorded was called "San Francisco Day," which turned out to be "Hitch a Ride," which is also on the first album. So, those songs had their inception back then.
The vocal harmonies seem to have been a trademark with the band from the beginning.
BRAD: When I first started playing with Tom, we didn't have any harmonies at all. I was the only singer, and we were doing a lot of Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin and that kind of stuff. It was only when we got in the studio that we started doubling up on the lead vocals, and we'd try little harmony parts here and there. My big influence in music was the Beatles, and prior to meeting Tom, I was in a band that did almost all Beatles songs for a while. So, we used to work out all their harmony parts. When Tom and I went into the studio, we'd start with a basic three-part harmony idea and work little changes into it as we went along. Just changing one note would change the whole chord structure. We'd just go back and forth making little changes and go along until we hit upon something that we'd like. I was the only singer, and would sing the background parts as well as the lead vocals. I wound up doing that on the records as well. I'm actually the only voice on all three Boston albums.
TOM: I really like harmony singing. It's just my taste. The Hollies and Byrds were the most influential for the vocal harmonies. The guitar harmonies I first heard played by Todd Rundgren and by Jimmy Page on Led Zeppelin's first album. Two or three notes were done in harmony on that album. I stopped listening and thought, that guy hit on something there. He never did it anyplace else on the record.
Did you develop your musical philosophy during your bar band days before you recorded?
TOM: The task of getting up to the first Boston album was a very circuitous one. Almost nothing that I did while I was trying to play in bar bands applied. It was almost totally for naught. The only things I ever did that ended up contributing to the Boston repertoire or sound were done from recording, which goes back to '69 or '70, and from song writing on my own. A year and a half or two years before the first Boston album, I specifically told the people I'd been associated with, who were playing in bands, that I was through playing in bands. It wasn't that much fun, it was definitely getting no place, and I didn't see anything creative coming out of it. It was slowing me down. I stopped all together to do nothing but work on writing songs and recording them, which I did largely on my own, with the exception of working with Jim on rhythm tracks and Brad on the vocals. Barry Goudreau also helped. I pretty much stuck with that formula. The very first thing I ever recorded was "Foreplay," in Jim's basement, on a two-track. And all the things that got us on the way to the record deal were based on that.
Was there a point when you knew you had a Boston sound?
TOM: Even after there was a deal, I never really believed that. I didn't know if it was particularly original or not. At that point, I was doing something that I was just learning to put together. I wasn't listening to a lot of other music at that time, back in '74 or '75. I wasn't sure how it fit in or didn't fit in. I had a number of people telling me that I'd blown it, that disco was the thing and nobody wanted to hear this kind of rock 'n' roll. I would have been very egotistical to consider what I had as a 'sound.' I didn't know if twenty people besides myself would want to sit down and listen to it I was quite surprised when "More Than a Feeling" took off the way it did. In fact, I never left my full-time job. I was still working when it was on the radio.
You've always treated the vocals and guitar as equals.
TOM: Yes, that's an intentional arrangement technique, and just natural for me. I don't favor one over the other. I think they're both important in this particular type of music. I suppose if I were a singer there would have been all vocals, because it takes forever to play the guitar parts. I never cared that much about vocals when I first started listening to music, which was all instrumental and mostly classical. I was just interested in melody and power. I didn't start to really listen to words at all until I started to write songs. Then it started to dawn on me that a vocalist could be treated like another instrument, and as a way to get feelings across with a lot of power. Once that finally dawned on me, I managed to start doing something about getting vocals that really added something to the song. The guitar was always a natural as far as being included as a sometime carrier of the melody. That goes back to classical ideas as well.
So you're trying to bring the vocalist up to par with the instruments?
TOM: Not quite. In my case the lyrics are always written to complete or augment the feel of the song. What I was trying to say is that the vocal can be as powerful a tool as the lead guitar is or; some other lead instrument, as long as you think of it that way. I don't just think of it as some vehicle to get my words out on the radio. The music as it's arranged is kind of a throwback to classical music, and the vocal is really being used as an instrument. Part of the problem about writing lyrics for Third Stage was the difficulty of writing what I meant to say, making it fit in a verse form with a rather regimented rhyming scheme, and having the right sounds at every point The vocal that's singing an E is a lot different from the vocal that's singing an A. One is right for one section and the other is right for another, and you're a slave to using that sound, and the words will have to be figured out in order to make it fit. I try very hard not to allow the lyrics to compromise the sound. At the same time, once I get to that point Iím damned if I'm going to put out something with lyrics that don't make sense or don't say what I want them to say. Consequently, that takes ten times longer.
How are you presented with the material?
BRAD: On cassettes. For example, when I first heard "Amanda," which was the first song we worked on, there were no lyrics. I got a cassette with just the instrumental tracks, and Tom asked me to see what I could come up with. He had a couple of ideas that we started out with, and I think we actually wound up doing two or three versions of that before we settled on the final lyrics, which were mostly Tom's. On that particular song, he did something that he very rarely does--he sang the melody. Sometimes he'll play the part, or sometimes when I'm at the house, he'll sing it to me over the track. But in this case, he put it on the cassette, just in the background, to give me something to go by. We went back and forth like that. But I would be amiss if I didn't say that for most of the stuff, he had a pretty good idea at the onset of what he wanted, at least as far as the melody line.
How disciplined are you at songwriting?
TOM: I've never been any good at creating on a schedule or when I'm supposed to. Actually, songwriting is a real long series of events. Somewhere along the line I have to have an idea, which might be a chord progression or a little riff of some kind. Sometimes that may be accompanied with a melody idea, but not necessarily. I don't know how that happens, and maybe if I could find a way to make that happen more often it wouldn't take six years to do an album. A lot of times I get the ideas just by playing piano, organ or guitar. Sometimes I will actually have an idea without an instrument and sit down and try to play it. I've never come up with all of the fundamental pieces of a song in one sitting.- I've never done that in my life. I've gone years and years between various pieces of the song before I've gotten what I'm looking for.
Do you write differently on different instruments?
TOM: In every case, it's always slow, but it shows up in the final product. In other words, if I write it on the piano, I record it on the piano. I can't think of anyplace where that isn't true.
When a new piece clicks in do you automatically know which song you're going to use it in?
TOM: No, I don't usually think in terms of specific tunes or partially completed tunes. usually it's a matter of a chorus and a verse working well together, or a chorus finishing off a verse that I had at the time. There are occasions where I have different places for the same song to develop into, like verses that are very similar or two different choruses that can't be used in the same tune, and I won't know exactly which to go to. In other words, I'll end up setting a few things down quickly, all at once. On Third Stage, "My Destination" wouldn't work anywhere in "Amanda." The changes are different at the end of the verses, and "Destination" doesn't travel the same route, so I couldn't use it on "Amanda." But I really liked it, so this one time I decided intentionally that I was going to do this thing both ways. Lyrically, the song is still about Amanda, but from a totally different viewpoint, a more mature viewpoint. Musically, I feel that way about it, too. I put it on intentionally to finish that side as sort of a wrap-up.
Did any vocals come out quickly on Third Stage?
BRAD: I remember the vocals going down fast for "Cool the Engines." That was probably my favorite song to sing as well, maybe because it's the most up tempo song on the record. So we were looking for something that was a little freer with the vocals. It was meant to be a rock tune, more or less, so we could have a little more fun with it.
Thinking of your voice as an instrument, which song was the most challenging?
BRAD: "Hollyann" was kind of a tough song to sing. I don't know what the range is there, but there were a couple of ungodly leaps that I had to make in that song. Plus I think that particular song was probably a very important one. As much as they all were, I think that was a pretty personal statement that Tom wanted to make.
Which is your favorite vocal performance?
BRAD: I like the way "My Destination" came out. I particularly enjoyed singing the bridge to that song. There are some good lines there to work with.
Which Boston songs have your favorite vocal or harmony parts?
BRAD: One that I particularly like is "We're Ready." I wouldn't call that the ultimate harmony song, but I do like the parts that we worked out and the way they came together. So I enjoyed listening to the vocal harmonies on that song. "Don't Look Back" I liked a lot. That was probably my favorite from the second album. One that I used to really enjoy doing live was "Long Time," partly because it was the kind of song where I could vocally stretch out. There were long passages without harmony parts, so I could play with the vocal a little bit.
After a song has been written, do you then duplicate it on tape as you hear it in your head, or is the song written as you're putting it on tape?
TOM: The important parts of the song, the chord changes and the melody, are generally known at that point. However, I have been known to change both after it's already on tape. When I work on it, it's for the first time and I'm running a master tape or I'm running a copy of the master tape, and I'll sit down, for instance, to play a lead guitar line and I will never have heard the song before. A tape deck is in my hand and I'm playing to it. Usually, I will have something in mind to start, but if it doesn't work out too well, then I'll start experimenting, and the first time I play something I like, that exact track is the final take. I stop, dub it onto the master, and I never play it again. Occasionally, I won't like something about it, and I'll do another one that's similar, with a different twist or what have you, but the very first time I get it, it goes on. The same thing is true with the vocals. Brad's so good, he can do a line exactly the same and change just a little thing in it. But the first time he gets it so it's what I want to hear, then that's stopped and it goes on the tape. There's never a learning process where he sort of learns the song and rehearses it, and then lays down the track. That never happens. Nobody has to learn anything. The very first time it's played that it sounds the way I envision it, or the way I like it, that's the one that goes on.
BRAD: Of course, I've been working with Tom since 1970, and that's when we first started recording in the studio. So over a period of time, I think we've gotten used to one another and I feel like I have a fairly good sense of what he's looking for, and he has a pretty good sense of what I'm able to do.
Do you envision your songs being played by a solo performer, say a guitarist or pianist?
TOM: I don't think of that at all. Frankly, when I'm working on this stuff, I don't care if it's impossible to play on a guitar and a piano together. My only objective is to get the sound onto the tape in the way I want. If that meant that I had to play piano notes and guitar notes alternating on every other note for five hundred beats, that's what I'd do. I always figure that when it comes down to performing the thing in a live situation, I'll find a way to be able to make that sound. But when I'm recording, it's no-holds-barred. I don't care if it means tuning a guitar up or down a half step or a couple of steps that's the least of it. I would do that at the drop of a hat. Afterwards, I often learn how to play the pieces, usually for my own amusement. But, I manage to come up with some pretty good renditions playing it on a single instrument. The piano is always more flexible.
Is there anything you learned about the creative process as a result of taking so much time to record this album?
BRAD: I'm sure I picked up a lot just from spending as much time in the studio as we did. I don't think I would be able to make a record that way because I don't think I would have the patience. What's amazing to me is a song like "To Be a Man," which has harmony parts that are not strictly the straight 1-3-5 vocal parts, which are the things that occur to you immediately. Often I'd be working on a song where we'd be working out the harmony parts and I would give Tom the most obvious one, and it wasn't the one that he was looking for. Maybe he wasn't exactly sure either. Often there were points where I would've stopped and said, well, let's do it this way, and we never would have come upon the parts that we ultimately did. It was very interesting for me to see that the best things aren't always immediately obvious. That is where I think if Tom hadn't spent the time and really gone over the possibilities, he wouldn't have come across these different ideas. I think the songs are better for it
What have you been doing since the Third Stage tour ended? Is Boston Four in the works?
TOM: Absolutely. I have a ton of new song concepts and ideas in varying stages of completion. There's also several pieces of music from a few of the guys I've been playing with. I think it will be a lot more up tempo and more straightforward rock 'n' roll. I probably have enough starts on material for two or three albums. My immediate objective is to get one good one. However, right now I'm working on finishing the studio I hope to record the album in. It's been a year and a half long project. It wasn't coming together and finally I decided I was going to have to stay down there and be on the site all the time, with sketches and answers. There's a crowd of people here doing everything from equipment modifications to building isolation booths. I've been following it myself one on one to try and push it through and get it up and running. Whenever I can, I'm driving nails, soldering and screwing screws myself.
So would you hazard a guess as to when the next album might be out?
TOM: Forget it.