Interview with DAVID SURKAMP (PAVLOV’S DOG) – Part 1

September 2016

David SurkampDavid Surkamp had never aspired to become a mythical figure but so sketchy were the details of his ’70s band’s existence – and so unbelievable were the facts about PAVLOV’S DOG that made it to the public – that, together with the singer’s perceived low-key profile afterwards, he turned into a legend. Another factor of such a transformation was David’d remarkable voice, this instantly recognizable instrument of purveying his music’s message or, in case of “Julia” and other love songs, simply emotions. All this made the St. Louis artist a subject of rumors which suggested Surkamp died from inhaling helium or from complications of surgically enhancing his vocal chords yet, of course, none of it could be farther from the truth. In reality, he continued to write and perform, and a new version of PAVLOV’S DOG has been running for a decade now without demystifying their leader until the ensemble’s latest release – "Live: House Broken" – where David Surkamp’s finally revealed in full concert flight. As for the revelation of the real person, there’s nothing better than a conversation this scribe had hoped for for a long time – until it happened, a chat full of laughter and confessions. Read on.

– David, I’ve been itching to see a PAVLOV’S DOG show – to see, not only to listen to – for a long time, and now there’s finally a chance to do so.

You know it’s a lot of fun, performing, and we had a really good night. We didn’t fix anything from the beginning of the set to the end of the show, it’s warts and all. PAVLOV’S DOG’s a good live band, so I guess it wasn’t that bad.

– According to Wikipedia, you’ve filmed a few shows in the last years. Why did you decide to release this one, not the previous footage?

I don’t remember filming any other shows other than this. Occasionally, people would bootleg our stuff, but that was the first time we did actually shoot and record a concert; we’ve never done that before.

– It’s a PAVLOV’S DOG show, but you had a kind of solo career going, what with the "Dancing On The Edge Of A Teacup" album, and now you’re reclaiming the name. So is there a line between David Surkamp and PAVLOV’S DOG?

Well, I don’t know if there is a huge line. PAVLOV’S DOG have always been based on my songs, basically, so I guess the big difference between the “Teacup” album and a PAVLOV’S DOG record would be that “Teacup” didn’t have the violin and the heavy guitars, whereas the violin is a prominent part of PAVLOV’S DOG’s sound and the electric guitar is always up front and center. But in terms of composition… I write songs all the time – I always have – and where they end up, it’s not something I think about. On the new DVD, “House Broken,” we perform a song called “Crying Forever” which my wife, Sara, sings on-stage – it was recorded by Kim Simmonds’ band, SAVOY BROWN, first – but I never really planned to play that song. It seems to have a life of its own. We love that song; we’ve been playing it for a while now; everybody seems to enjoy playing it – Sara’s singing it, and Amanda [McCoy] the guitar player and Abbie [Steiling], our violin player, get a lot of room to spread their wings. It’ll probably stick around for a while. I’ve written hundreds of songs that people never heard, and I can’t put them all out I guess. (Laughs.) When a song is finished, if it has a place [on a record] – that’s great; if it doesn’t – that’s okay, too.

– If we talk about composition: I always found it strange that people focus on your voice and don’t really notice it was songwriting that defined the band’s identity.

I always thought so. It started when I was in high school, and [future PD bassist] Rick Stockton and I had a group called HIGH ON A SMALL HILL which kind of turned into PAVLOV’S DOG. I’d written “Episode” on "Pampered Menial" by the time I was 18, so it was always – for me, at least – focused on songwriting. I mean I never thought that was going to be John McLaughlin and MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA (laughs) coming from St. Louis. I really enjoy virtuosity, but for me instruments always have to take a back seat to a song. If you have a good song you should be able to make it sound great, whether you’re singing a cappella or you have an orchestra on it. So a real part of PAVLOV’S DOG are my songs, for sure.

David Surkamp

– Since we’re talking instrumentation… You had, and still have, this twin-guitar thing going in the band. Was it a WISHBONE ASH influence?

Uh, no, although I’ve known Andy Powell since I was in my early twenties. Part of what it is, I generally write songs either on acoustic guitar or piano, and growing up when I was listening to – whether it was THE STONES, or THE BEATLES or even Buck Owens, and those country-and-western songs that I liked when I was a little kid in 1950s – there was always an acoustic guitar there really pushing the track. I’d just hear that acoustic guitarist in the background of every song, every recording, and I generally do it all when we are recording. Sara does it on-stage, and we’d be missing a big part of that if we didn’t have the acoustic guitar charge along: with Sara holding down an acoustic rhythm guitar part, and Amanda and I on the electric ones, we’re able to get all the other parts that might have been overdubbed before. We don’t do a lot harmony parts – there’s “Late November” and a couple of others where we’re doing this. I loved WISHBONE ASH, still do, but growing up in St. Louis, THE ALLMAN BROTHERS played here all the time before they became THE ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND – they were called HOUR GLASS then – and Duane Allman had already been working on that twin-guitar thing in the back of his head, and I’m pretty sure he was influenced by the original FLEETWOOD MAC, with Peter Green and Danny Kirwan doing a lot of those twin-guitar parts.

– They had three guitars there. You forget about Jeremy Spencer.

Oh, right! Jeremy Spencer, right! But he played the slide mostly. He did all the Elmore James stuff. But I loved the Danny Kirwan [version] of the band; I loved “Bare Trees”; I loved “Kiln House”…

– You grew up in Missouri but I don’t hear any Southern rock influence in your music. More so, it’s that rare occasion where I find it hard to pinpont influences – except for rock ‘n’ roll in “Natchez Trace”!

It’s because I came from an acoustic music background. I was playing ukulele and mandolin by the time I was four or five, maybe even younger; I was playing piano by the time I was five or six. So I wasn’t coming necessarily from a hard rock background. I listened to English folk songs, Child ballads, Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, all that stuff… I think everybody on my mother’s side of the family was communist or something! (Laughs.) There was all that approach to music in my background as a little kid. And there was always a guitar around the house.

– Wasn’t there a classical music influence?

I’m not sure. My grandmother had a beautiful singing voice and went to theater school at the university. She was a huge fan of Shakespeare, and she would play Chopin for me, some Beethoven, Mozart obviously. I guess I listened to Bach a lot, just trying to figure out how music worked, but that had more to do with having piano lessons by force more than anything else. (Laughs.)

– So where did all this sophistication come from? Early PAVLOV’S DOG compositions just beg for orchestra.

When I was in high school, there was this drugstore, a pharmacy, that carried albums and ’45s, that were actually cheaper there than if I’d gone to a record store, and I saw the very first KING CRIMSON album, “In The Court Of The Crimson King,” and I bought it, just from the cover artwork – I had no idea what it sounded like and I didn’t know who they were, but I had three dollars in my pocket… That kind of opened my mind a lot to be pushing myself a lot harder and to sophistication. That said, some of the songs on the first KING CRIMSON record sounded like an acoustic guitar songs: “I Talk To The Wind” and “Moonchild” are basically folk songs with heavy orchestration.

– These came from Ian McDonald mostly, not from Robert Fripp.

Oh, definitely: it was all Ian McDonald as far as I can tell! And I loved the “McDonald And Giles” album, too. I was playing it a couple of months ago, and I was surprised by how good it was; I hadn’t heard it in probably a decade. A friend of mine found a copy of their CD and gave it to me, and I was like, “Wow! This really is good!” Ian McDonald was a genius, although I wasn’t really into FOREIGNER.

– The old PAVLOV’S DOG had left short but impressive body of work. Did you – or do you – find it difficult to live up to those two records?

No. I just tried doing what I want to do. I was really unhappy in PAVLOV’S DOG, By the time the second record was over, I was finished; it just took me a while to extricate myself from the recording contract. By the time the third record came around, everybody in the band thought they were the songwriter (laughs) but, of course, none of them could write songs to save their lives. It was just getting ugly.

– You mean, creatively or on a personal level?

Both, both… I wasn’t getting along with anybody, and it was horrible. It was just horrible, so I wanted out. I think they did a demo without me and presented it to Columbia Records, and there wasn’t a single song that worked, so our manager basically put me in a hotel room, with one of the guys from the road crew, a friend of mine from high school, and I just kind of locked myself in this room with a piano, a guitar, a mandolin and a tape recorder, and I knocked out what eventually became “Has Anyone Here Seen Sigfried?”. We tried to record that as a band but halfway through that it was getting so awful, so Douglas Rayburn and I took the master tapes, went to New York and finished it there with guys like Elliott Randall and Jeff Baxter – that type of session people that I knew. So that way I was able to leave the band and move on for awhile, which is what I did! I hooked up with my friend Iain Matthews, and we had a little rock band called HI-FI.

– We’ll get to it a little later but, while we’re still taking PAVLOV’S DOG: were song titles like “Episode” and “Theme From Subway Sue” – even though the latter was a misheard lyric – a conscious attempt to create your own mythology?

PAVLOV'S DOG in the '70s

PAVLOV’S DOG in the ’70s

No. It’s just the way my art is , the way I think. I don’t do very much stuff that’s premeditated. I can pick them like antenna: I guess there are songs out there and I just grab them out of space and time. I tend to write the words and a melody at the same time. Like the song “Echo & Boo”: I was driving my pickup truck down the road, and a piano motif came into my head, so I pulled over, sat under a tree, and wrote that song out from the first line to the last. It took about half hour from the beginning to the end, and I didn’t have an instrument; I could hear what the notes are. I can pretty much play ’em if I can hear ’em. And “Julia” was the same way: I wrote “Julia” in 15-20 minutes – I just flagged them out. (Laughs.)

– Famously, “Pampered Menial” was released by two record companies almost simultaneously. How come there was no legal action between them?

Because we were signed to ABC Records first, but then the president of the label who signed us, Jay Lasker, got fired, and we realized that if he wasn’t there, they were not going to work on the album [promotion]. We would be in a very bad situation had we stayed on ABC, so Columbia Records – they were one of the labels who’d wanted to have us, but ABC basically outbid them, to begin with – bought our contract, and all of a sudden there was one record on two labels on two different positions on the “Billboard” charts competing with itself, which was strange.

– But you got your royalties anyway.

Yeah, yeah. We even got a platinum record in my living room. We put that stuff up, kind of like gold trophies.

– One of that album’s producers was Sandy Pearlman who died recently. How do you remember him?

Fondly. He was my friend, a good friend and a really smart guy, very intelligent. He would push me… It’s weird: he knew how to guide me, almost sometimes without me knowing it. He understood what my approach was and what I was trying to do, and if I was having a blank spot he knew how to control it – he would finally suggest something to me to maybe remove that block and finish it. I remember on “She Came Shining” – there is an outro: “And Chinatown, it ain’t never seemed so bad” – we were basically looking for a phrase, and that line wasn’t there yet when we recorded a basic track. I had friends in a New York band called THE DICTATORS, and we would go to Chinatown and eat this really crappy food and get sick all the time, so I was always whining about it. But Sandy said, “Chinatown, it ain’t never seemed so bad,” and I went, “Oh, I’ll use that line!” (Laughs.) He reversed my own vocabulary on me to get it into the song! He was really talented, he really was. Some of his lyrics for BLUE ÖYSTER CULT records are just phenomenal, and, of course, his production work was wonderful as well.

– Some of the songs you were writing and playing between the two albums – like “I Wish It Would Rain” or “Little Better” – didn’t end up on “At The Sound Of The Bell”…

Right. A lot of stuff didn’t end up on the second album! Again, I’ve written a lot more songs than actually got recorded. “Shaking Me Down” on “House Broken,” during the encore: I’d never played that song before that night, and none of the guys in the band had ever heard it before Nuremberg. I write the songs, and if an occasion present itself to play something – whether anyone likes them or not (laughs) I play it. If I hadn’t done “Shaking Me Down” that night, I wouldn’t be talking about it now, so it probably worked out, to be true.

– You opted for a softer sound on the second album. Was it a producer’s decision or you wanted to move in that area?

I think it was the direction I was trying to have all along. I’d never thought of us as a heavy metal band or anything; I really like it when it’s sophisticated, but I really care that it has something melodic in there. And I like those weird time signatures and stuff: it’s probably a weakness of mine. I think it’s a lot more interesting than pounding out one or two chords like a blues band or something. I couldn’t suffer that very long but… You know there are some heavy moments on “At The Sound Of The Bell” but I didn’t really want it to do that Neanderthal thing that we’re all capable of doing. (Laughs.) If you have electric guitars, it turns out really loud which is natural, and one of those natural things might be the riff to “Song Dance.”

– What was the meaning of the second album’s cover, by the way?

Oh, that’s easy. It’s the Hunchback of Notre-Dame. The sound of the bell itself was Pavlov’s scientific project; but when I think of a sound of the bell, it goes back to Victor Hugo. It was just a little pun – probably a bad one. I did a lot of reading when I was growing up; I didn’t get out a lot, so I read a lot and I guess some of that stuff just stuck with me.

– Well, you even worked as a journalist later on, for years.

For a decade, yeah. I got sick of playing music. For about ten years, I was writing music reviews, interviews… just writing, basically [for “St. Louis Chronicle”].

– Given your literary bent, could you explain why “Valkerie” was misspelled?

Ah… Honestly, I don’t really know how that happened. (Laughs.) Probably just a clerical error, or somebody couldn’t read my writing. A lot of times, Sigfried Carver was writing down the stuff I was writing, and he just couldn’t understand what I was saying: that was literally how “Subway Sue” happened [Carver wrote down the song’s title as such instead of “Someday soon]. Sigfried was just brilliant – a triple genius guy; sometimes he was forcing me to be organized where I wouldn’t ordinarily be.

– You had Bill Bruford play on “The Bell”: was it easy to get a famous British drummer to work with you?

David Surkamp

Not really. We were getting into a bad situation; I mean the band was falling apart. We’d done a few tours supporting “Pampered Menial” and our original drummer couldn’t keep up with the direction I was going. I was ready to throw in the towel, but I sat around with Sandy Pearlman and Douglas Rayburn and said, “We’ve got to do something here. I can’t see us try and record this album with all this sophisticated music, and not being able to perform it properly. And the big part of the problem is a rhythm section to keep up.” Sandy asked, “Look, who’s your favorite drummer?” I mentioned Bill Bruford and a few other guys, including Robert Wyatt, but he’d been paralyzed for two years at that point, so he was out of question, obviously. So we approached Mr. Bruford who was between the bands – KING CRIMSON had broken up, and I think he’d just done some recording or touring with GONG – and he said he’d be happy to join us.

– There’s a song called “Mersey” on that album, which you characterized as “cinema verite”…

What happened with that was, [guitarist] Steve Scorfina didn’t have a song on the second record but he had that guitar riff, and our managers said, “David, you have to finish this thing.” So I wrote this song, and I just got done reading a biography of [Humphrey] Bogart and [Lauren] Bacall, so it was fresh in my mind. I was watching a Bogart film just this morning, “Across The Pacific” – from 1944 I think [1942. – DME] – so I guess I’m still turned onto that. (Laughs.) I do like that stuff: classic cinema never wears on me.

– Recently, you said that the band could never play “Did You See Him Cry” live, back in the day. But it’s there, on a Detroit bootleg from 1976.

We tried to do it, but I think it was PAVLOV’S DOG Mk 3, with Kirk Sarkisian playing drums, and we would occasionally attack it, but I was never happy with the results. Just never was. And now we eat it for lunch – it’s easy. This band is much better socialized than any of the original versions, we get along better, we play better; it’s an all around better situation which, frankly, keeps me inspired.

– Well, Amanda is an amazing player. A new name for me but amazing.

Yes, she is such a passionate performer: that’s the real deal. I don’t think we were prepared for how good she was. (Laughs.) We were looking for somebody that I could play with comfortably, so we’d go out and watch bands, see people play, had people auditioning who would approach me about the other guitar spot. I was disappointed and thought that I was going to be the only electric guitar player, and then Abbie was playing a concert in the South, and Amanda was part of the orchestra that she was playing with. And Abbie said, “We’ve got to get this woman to play with us,” so Amanda came from Nashville, we spent the afternoon together, and she’s been with us ever since. But I do love her first solo record [2015’s “The Hurt”], it’s brilliant. And you can hear her sing – she has a lovely voice.

To part 2

One Response in another blog/article

  1. […] Let It Rock: Interview with David Surkamp (September 2016) […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *