Power Pop Pioneer and multi-instrumentalist Richard X. Heyman recently ran a successful Kickstarter campaign for the development and release of his latest opus, 67,000 Miles an Album, and from what we hear, the CDs have landed, so the album will be available for wider audiences this month. This album carries a particularly interesting mix of Heyman’s own take on some songs written for The Doughboys, some entirely new songs, and some songs drawn from musical fragments dating back to Heyman’s youth when he first moved from his drum kit to a piano in the garage to explore songwriting.
Within that range, however, Heyman does following some governing ideas that bring the album together, central to which is the concept that we are on a tiny planet moving silently through space at a vast speed, all while appearing to stand still here on terra firma. Along with that goes the wonder of geography and its role in our lives and human history. These big ideas go well with some very spacious and captivating new music from Heyman that seeks to bring some of the same awe and wonder to our aural experience. I spoke with Richard X. Heyman about these very big ideas and some of the musical secrets behind 67,000 Miles Per Album.
HMS: I was happy to see that your Kickstarter for the album went past its goal and that you’ll also be releasing the album more widely. Is it helpful for you to have all these aspects in your own hands and set your own goals?
Richard X. Heyman: It’s useful to have this autonomy, and you think it’s going to be easier, but sometimes it’s harder. It’s the same with the whole digital world. There used to be these limitations with analog recording and now the sky is the limit. You can have as many tracks as you need. You can put a hundred tracks on one song. When you decide what you want to put on a CD, there’s no issue about the length, it’s just peoples’ attention spans that you have to worry about. We’re not really living in an album-oriented world anymore, though I’m still living in one. I believe in the album as an artform. A lot of that is because I grew up with them.
HMS: I speak to a lot of people, even younger people, who still feel that way. They aren’t the majority but it’s a significant percentage. It does seem like things are moving towards singles and collections of singles, but there’s always the counter-movement of vinyl and listening to whole albums again.
RXH: To me, it’s like when you read a book. I think of albums the same way, as a thing unto itself, if that’s what the artist intended. In the old days, you’d listen to one side of the vinyl, so it actually wasn’t that time consuming. It’s a nice way to present music. It’s like a little concert. Sometimes I just want to hear one song, but most of the time I want to lie down and listen to a whole album, and get into the particular mood of the album.
HMS: Given that you think towards albums, how did it happen that a couple of songs on this album come from a much earlier time in your life?
RXH: Right, yes. I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve never really had a bad case of writer’s block. There are always songs to choose from when an album project starts up, so I have stuff lying around that I never used. Every once in a while I dig something up and decide to finish it up so it’s album worthy. When I first started out, I was a drummer. Then, I taught myself piano, and when I started banging around on pianos, I started writing things. I was about 17 years old when I started writing. I had all these piano pieces for years and years, and I used some of them as I went along, but I had some that I never used.
So, the opening song called “You Can Tell Me” was one that I wrote in my family’s garage at an upright piano. Someone down the street had been throwing it out, so I got it to start writing. I wheeled it down with a couple of friends. I had also been tinkering on pianos at school, cutting class and going into the auditorium. I had been taking a bunch of music courses in high school and was in the marching band. Another song on the album “Plans” was also written in my garage days.
The song “Highline Scenes” comes from two different songs. The chorus comes from a guitar riff that I wrote living in Midtown around 1980. I joined that up with another song that I had written in the late 80s or early 90s. Just as I was putting them together for this album, I thought about writing about this place called Highline, a scenic path that they built here in New York City on the elevated train tracks. It’s a cool way to spend the day.
I also have a song on the album called “Washington Rock” which is about this historic park which is right outside of Plainfield, where I grew up. It’s an amazing place with a view into Manhattan. The story is in the song, but George Washington used it as a look out in 1777.
HMS: It sounds like you let yourself write whenever something occurs to you, and it goes into a potential pool of songs for the future. Do you ever try to shape what you write about, or do you let your life suggest things to you?
RXH: Almost 100% of the time, I write the music first, so I have the chords, riffs, and melody in place. As I’m doing that, sometimes I’ll start to hear a couple lyrical ideas. If you’re lucky, it happens fast, but writing lyrics has always been the hard part for me. I have to sit down and do it, and it’s like doing homework. The music part comes very naturally, though, and then I tear my hair out to get the lyrics done. I try to think of things that I haven’t written about before.
For this album, there’s a slight concept to the whole thing. The idea is that the Earth is travelling around the sun at 67,000 miles an hour. Right there, that’s pretty amazing. Then the thought came to me that in one hour, everyone on the planet has travelled 67,000 miles. That’s also about the length of the album since I put so many songs on there. That’s kind of cool, that the listener will have travelled all that distance, 67,000 miles, from the first song to the last song. Then I started thinking that I should also write a few songs about geographical locations, so there’s one about Greenwich Village, one about 2nd Street, here in New York, one about Highline.
HMS: I noticed that “2nd Street” is bluesier and more of a rocker. Was that something where you had the music first as well?
RXH: One of the reasons that I started this album was that I had a lot of drum tracks that I had done for past albums that I didn’t use. A bunch of those were for songs that I’d written for my band, The Doughboys, who recorded and released many of them. I just wanted to try my own version here. That band is more bluesy and Garage-Rock in style. But that really kicked off this album, and I then wrote some new stuff, and found some old stuff, so it’s a mix of the more R&B side of Rock and some melodic stuff. It creates hills and valleys on the album.
HMS: I meant to ask, with those older songs you used for this album, what form were they in when you approached this album? Had you written things down or made recordings back then?
RXH: I just kind of kept them in my head, really. Because I didn’t get my first cassette player until the 70s, so I didn’t really have a way to record anything. Now, I have thousands of cassettes packed away in drawers, though I never listen to them. I don’t even think I have a working cassette player in the house! They are just working tapes and sketches on the piano or guitar. There is probably more stuff that has been unused than stuff that I got to record.
If something really sticks with me, like these two songs, I never forgot them, so they must be pretty good if I could never forget them. I wrote one or two chords for them.
HMS: Is the idea behind 67,000 miles an hour just a statement of fact for you, or do you have feelings about how quickly the pace of life is moving these days?
RXH: The thought that came into my head, especially with these pictures coming back from that telescope recently, is that it’s amazing to me how fragile everything is. We’re flying through space on this tiny little ball and all the contention and division on the planet just seems so ridiculous when you think about this sphere flying around the sun, and that’s just one tiny little solar system in the galaxy. It’s so overwhelming and it humbles me. It’s mad that people are so divisive. Life is so short. There’s not much I can do about it except write songs and live my life.
HMS: Looking at those pictures also makes you wonder, “How did we get to where we are now? Everything could easily have turned out to be something different.”
RXH: I know! That’s wild stuff. The millions of things that had to go right in just a certain way to end up with the reality that we have is just astounding. Sometimes I’ll say to my wife, “I can’t believe that there’s water, and that’s what we need to stay alive.” Here it is, and we can drink it. That’s one little tiny component along with the other elements that we need to preserve life. It’s amazing.
HMS: It seems like humans should be conscious of these things, at least.
RXH: That’s how I feel. I’m appreciative and grateful just to be alive. At some point it’s going to be over, so being alive is incredible.
HMS: The song “67,000 Miles Per Hour” is really interesting for a number of reasons. I feel like it’s almost a double-song because it has these two parts to it that have some differences to them. Did the music come first for that song?
RXH: The first section is something that I wrote on the piano, and it seemed like something that could have the title of the album on it, and it would fall together. Then, I was riding in the car one day, and I started singing a melody. That turned into the a cappella section. Then I thought, “This kind of reminds me of looking at the earth, flying through space, from a distance, and how lonely and quiet it is.” I tried to do this soft, wistful, a cappella thing to picture that. There are actually three sections to the song. There’s the first song, then the a cappella section, which was originally going to end the song. But for some reason that didn’t work. So I used part of another song and wrote more lyrics about all this division and about how people are so unnecessarily agitated. They should be filled with wonder. That’s how I wanted to conclude the album.
HMS: It really feels, musically, like you have this meditative or awe-inspiring feeling in the first section, but by getting towards the end, you can feel an energetic, aggressive tone like the way that human beings act or live. It’s what we’re naturally part of versus, maybe, what people have created.
RXH: Yes, the first section was based on how still everything seems, and that goes against the fact that we’re moving so quickly through space. That’s an interesting dichotomy. We’re spinning and we’re moving forward. It’s a turbulent ride. I wanted to capture that stillness, and then the last part, as you said, is more about the energy and aggressiveness of people on the surface. There’s a little park near where I live, and sometimes I’m the only person in there. Sometimes when I’m walking around, looking at the trees, I think, “All this stuff is actually poking out into space! I’m walking on the surface of this planet.” I find it fascinating that no one seems to register this.
HMS: Do you know why you choose certain musical ideas to make into songs and might not choose others? I feel like I hear things in your music that I haven’t heard before.
RXH: The music part comes pretty quickly. I’ve been writing on the piano a lot lately. I just move my fingers in one way or the other and interesting things can happen. What I’ve been doing for the last couple albums, and a lot on this album, is that I’ll have a piano song, and I’ll learn it on guitar, note for note. All the arpeggios that I play on the piano are things that I force myself to learn on the guitar, which are things you normally wouldn’t hear on the guitar. I do that so that it sounds like it was written on the guitar. I think the listener isn’t aware of that, but that may be what makes some things sound the way that they do.
On “You Can Tell Me”, for example, that was all piano stuff, and I forced myself to learn the whole song on the guitar, so I have a Rickenbacker 12-string playing all these piano parts. You can hear it right at the beginning of the song, the chords, melodies, and intervals are all piano, and not things you would play on guitar. When I hear it back, I think it sounds interesting. Throughout the whole album, I did a lot of that. For the song, “Her Likeness”, I did that.
HMS: That does help explain to me some of my own reactions to the music!
RXH: It’s an interesting way to go about it. I just kind of stumbled upon that a while back on one song that I thought I’d try it on, but for this album, there’s a lot of that. Even on “67,000 Miles An Hour”, it’s all over that, though there’s some guitar too. “Misspent Youth” turned into melodic guitar.
HMS: It’s incredibly labor-intensive, I’m sure! Maybe that’s why other people don’t do that.
RKH: That is true. It’s time consuming. If you play an arpeggio on the guitar, there’s a certain order of notes, depending on where your fingers are. But if you play one on a piano, it’s different. It’s very convoluted because your fingers don’t naturally go to these places. But once you put it together, you have something new. I’m pleased that you got that about the album.