1995 Interview

Page 3: Folk Aera

JOHNSON: Where does folk music fit in with the influences in your music because then you did the folk circuit?

PHILLIPS: Well, we started off, we grew up in Virginia. And that was really our - what was around us all the time. We were drawn to jazz, because we were sort of beatniks, really, rather than hippies, or whatever, flower children [laughs]. So we wanted to sing modern harmonies, like Lambert, Hendrix and Ross. Dave Lambert did a lot of our arrangements for us, as a matter of fact. I don’t know if you remember Dave, the father of bebop, he’s called. He met an untimely death on the New York throughway, changing a tire. On the way to a recording session a car got behind him and rear-ended him. So at that time we were The Smoothies. [Laughs] And we had always played guitars and banjos and things, and Scott and I, the survivors of The Smoothies, Bill Cleary and Michael Ren, threw the whole thing up in the air and said forget it. Bill still works with us as a consultant and so forth. And what is Mike doing?

McKENZIE: He’s an English - last thing I knew, he was an English teacher and had about twenty-seven kids.

PHILLIPS: Yeah. He was the funniest guy in the whole group, and played piano and all that stuff. So we decided we would be a folk group. We put an ad in the local newspaper, The Village Voice, for banjo/guitar players. A fellow, Dick Wiseman showed up, answering the ad.

McKENZIE: The professor.

PHILLIPS: The professor, yeah. And he turned out to be about the world’s virtuoso banjo player, and still is.

McKENZIE: As a matter of fact, Pete Seeger would say that.


McKENZIE: Because Pete used to send - I believe I’m right on this. He used to send tapes to Dick for his opinion and everything and they would get together and talk -


McKENZIE: And play banjo together. More than one airport, they’d sit on the luggage carousel or whatever and take out their banjos and play together.

JOHNSON: So you were in the Village during the transition from the beatnik era into the folk era?


JOHNSON: What was that like? What was the cultural, political scene likeduring that time?

PHILLIPS: God, who remembers?

McKENZIE: I remember everybody as trying to be very practiced at being anarchists, and yet living comfortably.

PHILLIPS: [Laughs]

McKENZIE: But I don’t know. I went to the Gaslight Cafe and I think it was Hugh Romney who later became Wavy Gravy. I don’t know.


McKENZIE: He was reading some poetry. This is how hip I was. You were there that night.

PHILLIPS: What night?

McKENZIE: We went to hear Hugh Romney and I didn’t know that after everyone, I mean, after someone read a poem or something, the way you applauded was like this [snaps fingers], because it was in the basement of an apartment building, and the tenants would complain if everybody clapped. So I’m sitting there and I’m trying to be really hip. I’m about twenty-years-old, squeaky clean white, I mean, just came down the river in a bubble. And Hugh Romney finishes this [imitates deep voice] thing, and me, the young, cool dude there, sitting there, I go [claps loudly].

PHILLIPS: And I’m going - [laughs].

McKENZIE It was like, you know. [Laughs] Everybody turned and looked at me and everything.

PHILLIPS: It’s never been the same, ever since.


JOHNSON: But I guess people think back to the time of the Village as sort of the early days of what became a major movement from the beatnik to the hippies, so there had to be some spark of creativity.

PHILLIPS: I think it already happened, really.

JOHNSON: Really?

PHILLIPS: Yeah. As The Journeymen, which we became, Scott and Dick and I, we did three albums for Capitol and our first job was at Folk City, Gerdes’ Folk City in the Village. And it was with Dylan and Lightnin’ Hopkins. It was Dylan’s first job in New York, also, and our first job, and Lightnin’s about four hundredth [laughs] job in New York. I remember Dylan borrowed twenty bucks and never paid it back, and [laughs] -

McKENZIE: But he used it well.

PHILLIPS: And you tuned Lightnin’ Hopkins’ guitar for him.

McKENZIE: Something like that.

PHILLIPS: [Laughs] He couldn’t tune the guitar.

McKENZIE: I could tune a guitar really well.

PHILLIPS: Yeah. Scott was a master tuner.

JOHNSON: That’s very good. Erik Darling said that’s his whole struggle with a twelve-string is to keep it in tune.

PHILLIPS: Oh yes. A twelve-string’s almost impossible.

McKENZIE: I’ve never known anybody could tune a twelve-string right. A couple studio players, but -

PHILLIPS: Well, now that they have good electronic tuners, it’s a lot easier.

McKENZIE It says it’s right. But it doesn’t sound right.

PHILLIPS: [Laughs]

JOHNSON: So we got an idea of John’s influences. What were your musical influences, Scott?

McKENZIE I hate to be uninteresting again here, but it’s pretty much the same. That was one of the things that attracted us to each other was that we liked almost exactly the same music. We both wanted to sing. We both loved groups. We both - I think John was really more enamoured of women and men singing together. I hadn’t really thought that much about it. But I loved The Modernaires. I love harmonies. I still do. I’d rather sing in a group than myself any day.

PHILLIPS: Yeah, groups are a special breed from a single performer.

McKENZIE: I am not a group singer. I’m a human being!

PHILLIPS: Yes. [Laughs]

JOHNSON: There’s a lot of conflict having groups. I know a lot of people -

McKENZIE: Oh, boy.

JOHNSON: And you, John, having a major group, The Mamas and The Papas. How was trying to hold that together? Was it a challenge?

McKENZIE: [Laughs]

PHILLIPS: Well, one doesn’t try to hold Cass and Denny and Michelle together. [Laughs] It’s a useless task to start with. You just sort of stay out of the way and let things roll as they can.

McKENZIE: Oh, God.

PHILLIPS: By majority vote, they thought. [Laughs]

McKENZIE: [Laughs]

PHILLIPS: I did all the arranging and write the songs and all that and slowly get my way.

McKENZIE: Ooh, that should be interesting.

PHILLIPS: That’s the best way to get it done.