The following interview is presented at Northern Lights with permission from the author and Opening Out publisher. The interview may not be distributed further either in electronic or printed form without permission from the author, publisher or authors of this web site. Fans interested in receiving the quarterly-printed Opening Out newsletter can obtain further details on how to do so in the Links section of this web site.
The following interview took place in early July by telephone, and may only be reproduced with permission. Michael Dunford has been extremely busy recently, both with his new studio album, Ocean Gypsy, and the musical of Scheherazade. Here he talks about these, as well as his thoughts about the continuing interest in Renaissance, and also insights into both Songs From Renaissance Days, and the mixing of the [Renaissance Live at the] Royal Albert Hall, CDs.
Opening Out: Why did you decide to rework some of the classic Renaissance songs for Ocean Gypsy, and how did you choose which ones to do?
Michael Dunford: Well, I thought it would be quite interesting to try and do something like that. There's a number of classic songs, mainly the lengthy songs such as "Mother Russia" and "Running Hard," I wanted to do some of the more acoustic songs. Some of these are my favourites that I thought would be quite good to rework in a different sort of way. I'm working with Richard Brown on the Scheherazade Musical, he's an Orchestrator, and I thought it might be interesting to do two or three songs using a small string quartet, although it turned out to be a trio with woodwinds on a couple of tracks, and just to generally give a slightly different feel and texture to some of these songs. Some of them obviously go back some particular way into the 70s, and it's just more of an experiment to see how they would turn out. I was very pleased actually at the end of the day, it was great fun to do and it brought back all sorts of memories. Tracks like "Things I Don't Understand," the last part which is a sort of semi-vocalise, it was really good to do something like that. We used to do "Things I Don't Understand" in concert, not that much, but it was always one of my favourite sections, so I thought maybe it would be nice to do something such as that. "At the Harbour" was also something that I think we played on stage in the early days, so there again, it would be nice if that was one of the songs to be orchestrated, so it turned out in a slightly different way and again I was very pleased. So all in all, it was a lot of fun to do that.
There's no drum kit as such on the album, was this a conscious decision to give the album a more acoustic feel?
Yes it was, I wanted it to be a sort of unplugged in a way, because I felt that it would be interesting to utilise percussion instead. I was very fortunate to meet somebody in Kent, where I did the album, who was really good and very inventive. It was great fun, with his various boxes and bags of tricks, to experiment and try different things. So yes, it was a definite conscious feel not to have drums, and I may well do the same thing on the next album as well.
Will the next album be all new material, or will it include more older songs? If so which songs will they be?
Ha, ha, ha, well I don't really know. I know that there will be a lot more new songs, but I'm not sure if it will be all new songs, or whether I should do some other classic Renaissance, or not so classic Renaissance songs as the case may be. So it's a bit of an unknown at the moment, I'm not really sure, I suppose it really depends how this one goes and the general feedback to see what people think of Stephanie singing all the songs that Annie sung.
I must admit, because "The Great Highway" was such a good song, it made me wish that it was an album of lots of new material. I could well imagine that other fans would feel the same way.
Yes, I must admit I am heading that way, originally when I was talking to HTD Records, we were talking about doing two albums. A mixture of going through the Renaissance catalogue and seeing which songs would work really well, and just doing them in more of an acoustic format. The original idea was to do two albums, with two or three songs on the first album, then maybe four or five on the next one. But I'm coming to the idea, especially with "The Great Highway" which turned out really well, that it might be interesting just to do all new songs. That probably is the way I'm going to go.
Do you have more songs in the same sort of style as "The Great Highway?"
Yes, there's a couple already, and there's a few more on the drawing board. Yes definitely, I feel that is the general sort of style of what we were doing before, but with a more contemporary, more modern view. Again it's a matter of trying and experimenting sometimes, and I always feel that I'm enjoying it. I still feel as though I've got a lot more to say through composition regarding Renaissance, so yes, there's more in that area definitely.
Are you going to do some concerts in the near future, and if so who will be in the line up?
There's nothing planned, no, it's a question of economics really. To put anything together and go out on the road is one thing, and obviously you need to have the shows to do and I think that at this given moment of time it really is an impossible situation. If there was some sort of moderate success with the album, and I don't mean chartwise or anything like that, I mean if it does very well then it would put us in a stronger position to be able to afford to do it. But other than that it is so very expensive to start up from scratch, not having done it for such a long time. Getting everybody together and rehearsing, believe me, it costs an absolute fortune and then you've got to be able to make it work on the road as well. If you are a unit, a three, four, five, six piece band or whatever and you came up that sort of way, as we did in the 70s, than you're all working together and you're all for one sort of thing. But in the situation with just Stephanie and myself, getting all the musicians, which obviously we would have to do, or maybe a string quartet. Something like that is what I'd really like to do, with a touch of woodwinds, then of course you have to pay on a session basis, and unless you've got some pretty good backing then it's a no no. It's something though, I must admit that I'd like to do, so I'll keep an open mind about it.
Were you pleased with the sound on the Albert Hall CD's and did you encounter any problems with the mixing?
Yes we encountered huge problems with the mixing, by the way of the lighting buzz. There was this tremendous buzz, especially in all the quiet passages. It was actually on the notes on the 24 track tapes. When I went across to New York, we did it at a studio called The Hit Factory which is an absolutely marvelous fantastic studio, it's state of the art and has everything there. But even then we had to try some different types of machines, to try and eliminate the various frequences of this buzz. We managed to do it to a certain extent, and also when it was mastered we managed to take out a bit more. But it's still there and noticeably in some of the real quiet passages, then it disappears and comes back again. There's nothing whatsoever that one could do about it as far as I'm aware, you couldn't actually get rid of it, that was the only real problem. Apart from that, it went like a dream and it was amazing how much, not having listened to or played any of the material for a great length of time, how much I remembered. When we were mixing it, especially with Gary Lyons, he's an extremely experienced engineer and it was good working with him.
Would you be adverse to any more concerts from the past being released?
I'm not adverse to it, but I can't think of any off hand. The Albert Hall one was a little bit different because it was with an orchestra. I know we did The Carnegie Hall ones sometime ago, I would suspect that most of anything else that has been recorded, would simply be on 2 track stereo and would not be recorded on 16 or 24 track. You have to have that in order to go into the studio and mix it, and to make it sound half decent.
Especially with today's standards being higher than they were.
Well yes, so much higher. If you listen to any 70s record and you listen to something current, there's no comparison, really thin and weedy, so if you're using today's technology with something from that era, then that's fine. Yeah if there's something there, sure we'll have a listen to it, though offhand I can't think of anything else, apart from another one or two King Biscuit ones that we did. I know we did a couple of other shows with orchestras, but I don't think they were recorded.
What is the latest situation with the Scheherazade musical?
We're aiming for a December Showcase, in fact it's December 17th. We're doing five or six performances, three of which are going to be open to the public, So it's all going very well, we're on the second lot of rewrites working on Act Two. I'm just extremely happy with the way it's going, it's hard work, something completely different from Renaissance and it is truly rewarding and again lots of fun. Now we're at the stage where it's going to be showcased, we hope, getting the money of course, that it will be on the following year in the West End.
How much of the original "Song of Scheherazade" remains in the musical?
Well there isn't really anything from it, only a couple of things, but there isn't anything because although the story line is loosely based on what Renaissance did before, ours is a different story line. Well it's the same in a way, obviously The Arabian Nights and the basic fact remains with the Sultan and Scheherazade telling him stories, but it's done in a completely different way, the only thing that is in the show is "Northern Lights," which again is done in a completely different style to how we did it. But that's the only thing, there's scenes and things, but not anything the same.
How do you feel about the recent renewed interest in Renaissance from the fans?
I think it's wonderful, I think it's great, I never would have imagined it all those years ago. I suppose when we were writing, recording and performing, you could never imagine that things would keep going or a resurgence as such, so I think it's absolutely fantastic, it spurs you on. With all the interest it pushed me forward to do the Ocean Gypsy album and to do more, because I had forgotten that there were that many fans out there that still cared and were interested, so it really is marvellous.
Did you imagine back in the 70s, that the music you were composing and performing would have a lasting quality?
No, I didn't think so at all. When you listen to any sort of music area, it goes in phases and stages, and sometimes it's very stylised in one particular area and then moves on to the next one. So you don't think that what you do is necessarily any sort of classic form at all, so it was a big surprise that things have kept going and able to have been like that. It's wonderful, and I thank all the fans of course.
Your Spanish guitar solo on "The Sisters" was one of the highlights of Novella. Would you do something in a similar style in the future?
Quite possibly yes, I mean not necessarily in the style of a Spanish flavoured song, but there's a couple of things I've done on Ocean Gypsy with the gut string guitar, which is what I used on "The Sisters." So yeah, it's something almost certainly that I will do, in what actual style, I'm not sure. I do have a new song that lends itself towards that type of classical or gut strung guitar style, so it's something that I definitely would do in the future.
Most of your guitar parts on Songs from Renaissance Days seem to be acoustic. Was there a reason for some of the songs being left off Camera Camera and Time-Line?
They weren't actually left off, a lot of the songs were songs that we recorded independently of those two albums, and some of them are completely different from that particular style that we were doing, which was far more electric. So there's no real connection, it was a question of over a period of those years, from the late 70s to the mid 80s, that we had been in the studio and done different tracks, and then when Annie and I were discussing it one time, about a lot of these tracks that had never been released, to see what we've got. It is a slight mixture, because there are a few things that are far more electric than acoustic, it doesn't gel, but it is interesting from the fact that they are unreleased. They were recorded to go on an album someday and they finally made it.
Which is your favourite Renaissance album and why?
Well, I don't really have a favourite. There are favourites for different reasons. I suppose Prologue being the first one because it was the first one, they were mainly my songs as were most of them. Ashes are Burning was something special because it was the first time we used an orchestra. It was the first time we gelled into the acoustic guitar-piano and 2 or 3 tracks were orchestrated. Scheherazade meant something because it was one side of an album, like a suite and to be involved in something like that and recording it fully orchestrally with the LSO was wonderful, as was Carnegie Hall of course. To perform in such a glorious venue, with the New York Philharmonic, for 3 sold out nights was absolutely fantastic. Then onward with Novella, which again is the first time I did "The Sisters," which is one of my favourite tracks, that means something. A Song for All Seasons was a sort of changeover, getting a producer in; David Hentschel. He introduced and suggested that I play a bit more electric guitar. I suppose you have to go with the flow to a certain extent, and of course out of that we had the great big hit "Northern Lights," which was wonderful, it's still good to play as a classic song now. After that, I think we totally lost our way. Azure D'Or was just trying to jump on what was going on at the time, as were the following two albums Camera Camera and Time-Line, although there are some interesting things on Camera Camera. So they all mean something to me, as I'm sure they do to the other members of the band. So there is no real favourite.
Why did The Other Woman have so few classical style songs on it?
Ah yes, you may well ask. I thought of the idea of doing another album with another singer after meeting Stephanie through the Royal Academy of Music. I started working with Andy Spillar, who is a keyboard player/producer and I think really I got sidelined a bit. Some of the songs should have been more in the style of Renaissance of years ago, but the more modern feel that I really wanted to put with it didn't materialise, and went too much the other way, more in a rock format. It was quite a complicated situation with two different producers involved, there were all sorts of politics. A lot of it was a lot of fun, but it just went on for a long, long time and at the end it really wasn't what I wanted to do. But we did it and it was something completely different from what we've done before with Renaissance. So that was that and still what I really want to do is like the Ocean Gypsy album, and with the new tracks such as "The Great Highway," not necessarily a six minute song, but I've got some other short ones more in that type of acoustic thing, more melody, everything like that.
What are your hopes and plans for the future of Renaissance?
What I would like, is to continue with what I'm doing now. The Musical has been going on for a number of years and that will reach its conclusion in the next several months. The major writing side will be finished, but there will be rewrites up till the opening night, touch wood hopefully that happens. But apart from all that, I would dearly love to carry on doing albums with Stephanie, cause she's got a great voice and she's real fun to work with. She really loves it, it takes me back to when I was first in the studio. I've got a lot more I feel, to write and to try a number of different things, all in the acoustical side and bringing in and trying some different instruments. Basically having the acoustic guitar and grand piano and the occasional strings and percussion, maybe I might use drums or just try some different areas. I would definitely like to carry on because it's just straight fun, but it obviously does depend on how it sounds and how the fans and everybody react to it. If it doesn't do that well, then HTD or anybody else won't say, "do you want to do another one?"