I’ll try to keep this succinct: Van Duren is a legend; this is fact. You may not be familiar with his work(s), but trust me – those who have been in the know since 1978 would be the first to agree with me. His songwriting is among the finest I’ve ever heard by anyone; he is a master of the craft – balancing strong melodies, the right arrangements and lyrics that suit each piece. He’s a magnificent, skilled musician. He has that mix of subtle nuance and sheer firepower in his performances. He’s a glorious singer. Listen to his deliveries of each song – it always works, seamlessly. He’s also criminally overdue to receive the proper accolades his music has been so deserving of, due to his first, now (again) legendary debut album being out of circulation for so long and his second album never coming out (save for a very unusual brief appearance some twenty years after being slated for release). I say all this as an unashamed fan of Mr. Duren’s work. But I also say this as someone who can proudly say he’s a very dear friend.
Omnivore Recordings is going to change this by the October 30th releases of the stunning debut Are You Serious? and the long-hoped-for second album, Idiot Optimism. I had the chance to have a conversation with Van and he was more than gracious with his time in answering, so read on – and while you’re listening to his music, turn it up!:
Let’s start with the obvious, since we need to frame the time period correctly for those who may not know the story: what led up to the recording and release of “Are You Serious?” When you look back at it, what would you consider the seminal moments of recording your debut album? And what were your expectations, once it was done?
I had spent 1973 through the first weeks of ’77, gigging in bands in my hometown of Memphis, playing my own songs as they came into being, as well as a giant list of what we thought of as cool covers. With the arrival of disco, the live work for us dried up – I was almost on the street and desperate. I took the only opportunity I had in front of me, which was to sign with a new indie label in the Northeast, Big Sound Records. I bought a one-way plane ticket, moved to New York City, commuted to and from the studio in Connecticut and spent the summer of ’77, recording my first album. The recording process was bare bones – mainly the drummer, Hilly Michaels played, and I overdubbed most of the rest, with lead guitar contributions from co-producer Jon Tiven. We’d work a couple of days and go back to the city to evaluate and plan what to do next. Took a little over 2 months all in all. There were many seminal moments, I think. Certainly, there was one per song, as it was completed. I felt like I’d proven myself, if to no one else but me. The expectations were to get the album out in the early spring of 1978.
After its release, what were the plans? Were you going to go out on tour? How long between “Are You Serious?” and “Idiot Optimism” did you have to write and begin arranging songs? And going into the second album, was there still the same kind of drive and enthusiasm for recording the follow up?
Are You Serious? was released in late March of ’78, and almost immediately got a lot of FM airplay. I was finishing up rehearsals with a new band of Connecticut guys, and in late April, we began a 5-month tour around New England, rocking colleges and large clubs to wild audiences. The tour ended and the band dissolved in late August. Then the label confirmed that they wanted a second album, with production to begin in late September of ’78. I already had a couple of older songs that didn’t make it onto Are You Serious? and a Chris Bell tune I wanted to cover, plus a half dozen new songs from the time between finishing the 1st album and the start of the tour. We began recording and worked in a sparser fashion – a few days a month, which was actually a blessing, as I loved the perspective I gained. And I used the time to write enough new things to finish the writing end of it. The “drive” was different for the second record. After the tour I knew that I wanted the new record to be more band driven as opposed to me overdubbing so much. I think I did maybe 2 or 3 songs where I played everything, but drums, and the rest of the tracks were great rhythm sections (Mickey Curry, Steve Buslowe, Sal Maida, Paul Ossola), guitarists (Tom MacGregor, Freddie Tane) and occasionally, the wonderful keys man, Jeff Batter.
What happened that stopped “Idiot Optimism” from coming out the way it was constructed, designed, etc.? Were other record labels interested or involved that could have stepped in?
There was a major label more than interested, but Big Sound turned them down. And I didn’t even know about it until much later. As far as Idiot Optimism being shelved in early 1980, that was heart-wrenching. But the good news is, I completed the record before I left.
Now that there’s been impetus created by the documentary, how does it feel to revisit these two albums? Were you listening to them with fresh ears to be able to remaster and, in the case of “Idiot Optimism”, reassemble it, as envisioned?
Idiot Optimism had been sequenced, when we finished it in 1980. There were no extra songs or takes, so the original song sequence is intact. Thanks to Omnivore, both albums have been lovingly remastered by Michael Graves at Osiris in LA. And the vinyl mastering was done here in Memphis by our friend, Jeff Powell, at Take Out Vinyl. Aside from the magnificent sound of the reissues, the packages have been reimagined with heavy input from me – including the front cover shot on Idiot Optimism, which almost no one but me had seen before. I had been saving it for the cover since 1979.
In hearing them again now, what is your takeaway with the new dynamism these two albums have? Do you have a greater appreciation for them as “the listener” (vs. being the artist) and do you feel that they sound just as timeless as I do, hearing these new editions?
In reference to this music; these records, I hear that word, “timeless” a lot as I get older. It’s true. You have to understand, these albums are in my head and heart. Always have been. I know every note; every mistake, every joy. I don’t second guess any of it today. There was a surreal magic that happened – sometimes under high pressure. But most of the time it was kid-in-the-candy-store delight. Especially Idiot Optimism. And yes; in 1979 and 1980, I frequently would fear that I’d wake up and find it all had been a dream. In some ways, maybe it kinda was, but now it turns out that dream is a living thing. The good guys win. After 40 years of waiting for Idiot Optimism to properly see the light of day, I can finally be at peace with it. It’s very hard to explain just how beautiful that is.
In the not-too-distant future, is there any possibility that you’ll be performing these songs live for more audiences in the U.S.? And will we see the rest of your (wonderfully varied and quite sizeable) catalog start to reappear? Would love to see the Good Question album and the two albums you did with Tommy Hoehn given the Omnivore treatment.
Never say never. I’d like to see Her Name Comes Up, the album I did with Tim Horrigan, released on vinyl. There is a ton of bonus material from the Good Question years; the Tommy Hoehn/Van Duren albums should be on vinyl, too. But what I’m most excited about is the new album Vicki Loveland and I just wrapped last month, which will be out early in 2021. It is killer. We will see where it all leads from here.
(infinite thanks to Van Duren for his very kind participation!)