Lighthouse - Paul Hoffert Interview

The following interview appeared, broken up into three parts, in the November 11, 18 amd 25, 1970 issues of the Georgia Straight. Copyright 1970 by Mike Quigley. No reproduction of any kind without permission.

I went to see Lighthouse last week with a certain amount of anticipation because they were reportedly much better in live performance than on records.

Their UBC concert on Monday night wasn't too convincing, however. Perhaps a major reason for this was an audience of about 550 in the 2,500 seat gym (one of the group's few Canadian concerts which wasn't nearly sold out) which did little for the acoustics which were already pretty dismal. Musically, the group sounded tired aside from some good solo work, which wasn't surprising since this was one of their last concerts of a six-week tour.

Things improved considerably the following night with Ballet High, where the group was much more together despite an extremely cold audience and a host of technical problems such as buzzing amplifiers and a seasickening orchestra pit. Of particular musical interest in Ballet High (which wasn't half the flop some local critics made it out to be) was Variations on a Bolero Theme, a work which the group had played with the Toronto Symphony.

Lighthouse also played the music by Canadian composer Harry Freedman for the ballet Five Over Thirteen which incorporated some electronic sounds. This last work in particular convinced me that Lighthouse indeed has a great deal of musical potential.

The following day I talked with the group's co-leader, pianist-vibist and arranger Paul Hoffert. Despite the fact that he was understandably tired, we talked for nearly an hour and a half.

MQ: I heard that you're having trouble with RCA Victor. Is that right?

PH: We've left RCA Victor International.

MQ: Why? Is your contract up?

PH: Our manager has gotten a release from RCA Victor. We're very unhappy with them -- I don't mind saying that. I don't think they really understood Lighthouse, a really underground kind of group. The company was going through a lot of changes. We're going to be on our own international record label now, which is called Rock 'n' Roll Records, which has about five or six other groups on it. Right now we're making distribution deals in every country. Probably in Canada we'll stay with RCA Victor because RCA Canada has done a very good job of distributing our albums. Our sales in Canada have been much better than in the U.S. on an equivalent basis. We'll probably be distributed by Island Records in England and Phillips in Europe, but the label will be controlled and run from Canada. We're going to try to have something on the Canadian pressing that's not on pressings in other parts of the world, so that the Canadian kids who supported us initially during roughest period will get just a little bit extra.

MQ: Most reviews of your first two albums remarked on their poor sound. What was the cause of this?

PH: Oh, it's easy to put blame ... I'm sure the fault lies in many places, the least of which being with Skip (drummer and co-leader Skip Prokop) and myself. The main problem with the first album sound-wise aside from an awful lot of problems with pressing with every single album, the difference between the pressings and the test pressings that were authorized was huge, and RCA always disclaimed any part in doing it. Later they found out that, "Yes, somebody did it," and "Yes, we're really sorry."

MQ: But then they were selling it ...

PH: Yeah, they were selling it, and those are the albums that all the reviewers get. Like two months later they rectify it, after it's too late. But aside from that, the first album was very strange. It was mainly recorded in Toronto on an 8-track for M-G-M which originally was the company Lighthouse was to be with, because that was the old record company Skip was signed to. What happened is as soon as we did the rhythm tracks, word got around in New York that this was really fantastic and all the record companies started dropping by and making offers. Vince, our manager, had a lot of foresight at the time, and he could see the fall of M-G-M Records, which happened about a year ago, and he thought it would be a good idea to get us off M-G-M. At that time it was important to make a record deal with a lot of monev. because Lighthouse as a concept was almost unfeasible. Everybody told us it was unfeasible. Albert Grossman wouldn't manage us because he said it was just impossible to do. He had just lost a couple of hundred thousand on Electric Flag, another big band. Logistically, with all the problems, everybody said, "Don't do it -- it's rather stupid." So we needed some kind of backing to get the thing together, and the musicians that we wanted, and RCA came up with the most. So they put a great deal of money behind us. They didn't put a great deal of taste or knowledgeable management from a distribution point of view behind us. They wasted just incredible scads of money. They'd spend like ten thousand dollars in a city promoting a single before the single had come out, and by the time the single had come out it would be off the charts. One of the things about our first album is that everybody at RCA kept telling us, "This is really fantastic." It was mixed at The Record Plant in New York and was bounced on a 16-track which was really noisy and wasn't really compatible. The original tracks were really very good, and everybody kept telling us, "It's a million-seller for sure." Unfortunately, we really got snowed which I hope is something that won't happen again.

MQ: How did the second album turn out by comparison?

PH: The second album was also recorded in Canada. When we went to mix it, we found we couldn't get the really fat horn sound we wanted, and we couldn't figure out why. Later we found out that at the studio where we were recording in Toronto, the Ampex machine they had, when you bounced -- overdubbed -- from track to track, it was out of phase, and you'd get cancellation instead of ... it's just ... I don't even want to discuss it (Laughter) We had many technical problems. We're at a point now where we all feel really good about the fourth album from many points of view. Before, the one thing that was always against us was time. We were always pushed to put out an album because we needed the money for the album. On our next album -- that's the one our own company is releasing -- we're really taking our time. The new album won't be out until everybody in the band feels really good about it. That's one of the reasons we have our own label now, so we don't have that record company kind of pressure.

MQ: Why was the sound of the third album so much better?

PH: The third album was recorded in New York. That was the main difference. The RCA 16-track studios are technically really very good. The technical problems were taken care of on that album, but we feel that we haven't captured the essence of the band on any of the albums. There's an album coming out in January on Columbia Records of the Isle of Wight which we're on, and I think that's the first time that they've come close to getting what Lighthouse is on tape.

PH: Well, we're Canadian ... we don't represent all Canadians. We feel very nationalistic, I think. When we go around the world we're very proudto be Canadians and to be from where we are. I don't think we'll ever leave the country to make more money or anything, though we've had the opportunity before. We're doing everything we can to bring industry to Toronto, which is our home base, in the form of demanding better recording studios, and, if necessary, building our own.

MQ: I notice the group has gone through quite a few personnel changes since you started...

PH: Yeah, we went through a lot of personnel changes and a fair amount of musical evolution rather than changes. When we first started, and even now, our personnel was different from many rock groups in that only about a third of our group -- the nucleus -- was culled from other rock groups, or the rock scene. Our string players were from major symphony orchestras, and our brass players were studio musicians earning thirty, forty thousand dollars a year. Because of the high calibre of a lot of our people and their great demand, there was a tendency to have personnel changes. Freddy Stone, one of the trumpeters on our first album, is now playing lead trumpet with Duke Ellington. One of our original cellists, Don Whitton, is now principal cellist with the National Arts Orchestra. So it's difficult to keep people like that on a permanent basis. Lighthouse was actually formed in kind of a backwards manner, because the first thing that we did was make a record. Like we didn't get together and jam and play for a year -- we made a record. And the normal evolution time for a band of six months to a year has only recently elasped. To that extent, the evolution of the group and forming of a co-operative unit has been only a recent development -- a development that's still going on. Only about six months ago everybody in the band really felt a part of what was happening, and at that point we found that personnel started to really stabilize. Everybody wanted to stay together to make a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts.

MQ: What are some of the other major problems you've had in getting the group to its present stage?

PH: The technical problem was our main problem, which is still in the process of being overcome. The first concerts which we played were fantastically successful and I can't imagine how they were, because nobody in the audience could have heard a tenth of what was happening. The only thing that could have gotten out to them was the raw energy that we can really get on -- like when you have thirteen people, there's so much chance for musical interplay and people musically stimulating each other. Originally the sound system problem was huge. We started out with acoustic strings -- violins and cellos -- which can't be amplified loud enough because they feed back. So it was absolutely impossible to hear the strings because you couldn't turn them up loud enough, and even at the level you were turning them up there was constant rumble and hum.

MQ: At the UBC concert, I noticed that the strings were playing an awful lot, but they weren't always heard. Maybe it was the acoustics up there.

PH: Well, you should be able to hear them now, though we're in the process of getting a whole new sound system. One of the things that happen to people who listen to the band for the first time is they're not aware of what the strings sound like. The strings that we have now are not acoustic strings -- they're solid body, and they don't sound like strings. Very often they're not playing "string" parts. I remember a review of one of our concerts where a guy completely mistook a guitar solo for a string solo. Right now there's not so much a problem of hearing the strings as getting the quality out of the strings that we have, and that's been solved for one of the stringed instruments, and parts have been ordered for the other two. We finally got the right combination of electronics together that we're all happy with. So number one was that we got our sound system -- we paid about forty thousand dollars for it -- and as soon as we got that there was a big improvement. That was stage one -- for once everybody could really hear what was happening. Now we realize that there's so much distortion and hum and noise in our system compared to what we want that we're getting a completely new system built. We're having an 8-track board built for us, similar to the one we've been using, but when the band stops playing there's real silence. The other problem with sound is that in order to feel really cohesive on stage, you've got to hear what's happening. In a three or four-man group that's not very difficult, but with Lighthouse where you may be separated by fifteen or twenty feet and have some trumpets blasting a foot away from you, and it's important that you hear the string line, that can be a big problem. The entire monitoring thing on stage is a big problem. Chicago's having the same trouble -- they've spent thousands of dollars on different systems. At the Isle of Wight they were really pissed off. As electrified bands become bigger, that becomes one of the prime problems ... just being able to hear what's on stage. You see, there's actually two sound systems on stage -- one for the people who are playing and one for the people who are listening, and they should be completely divorced because there's different functions they have to serve.

MQ: On your three albums, you haven't really had what I guessed could be called "FM material" with the exception of Places, the long cut on "Suite Feeling." Did you have problems with RCA Victor about the material you could put on an album? Like last night at the ballet you did two really complex pieces. I was wondering if you're trying to get a following with commercially-oriented material and then introduce more classical-jazz stuff?

PH: I understand what you're saying, but I don't look at it in the same terms. The basic problem we've had with in albums is that in our live show there's an awful lot of improvisation and experimentation, and it's long, When we do Whatever Forever or Places, it's about twice as long as on the album. The problem is that unless we do a double album we can't present material like that. Our next release will probably be a double album just for that reason. We haven't yet done a double album ... that's a record company decision. If you don't, you have to decide to do two tunes, one on each side, and get an idea of what Lighthouse is, or do a "record record" which is not necessarily a representation of the band performing live, but gets in so much standard material in a standard amount of time. And that's what we did. I don't think it had anything to do with being AM or FM or anything like that. That wasn't considered. It's just a matter of time, and how many cuts you can get, and what's the possibility of putting out an album like that. One of the nice things about the Isle of Wight tape, is that one of the things I want to release is a jam. They'll probably edit it. But it's really exciting, and it's really Lighthouse.

MQ: Last night Skip said you might be playing with the Vancouver Symphony next spring. What kind of material do you do with a symphony - The Variations on a Bolero Theme that you played last night?

PH: The Variations on a Bolero Theme that you heard at the ballet has never been done with a symphony orchestra in that way. It started out originally as variations on Ravel's Bolero. The symphony played Ravel's Bolero and Lighthouse went rhythmically against the symphony. Then Howard (sax player Howard Shore) later dropped the Bolero material and expanded it into its present form which is the way we'll be doing it with the symphony. It's also a piece of chance music, in that certain peices of music are written, but they're cued by Howard off solos, so the piece is different every night.

MQ: That's one piece you'd do with an orchestra. Have you got any others either planned or written?

PH: Well, we have a whole symphony program that we did with the Toronto Symphony and I'm in the process of charting up about six new things. The approach that we took originally with the symphony was to blow up Lighthouse material and give the symphony guys a chance to play some rock 'n' roll rather than have them play a bunch of sweet little fills. The concert we did was really successful from the point of view of the musicians in the symphony -- they really got off on it. We feel the outlook on the writing is maybe part of what we want to do, but we'd like to get into some different areas and use the symphony in different ways. Basically we do Lighthouse stuff, and we don't limit ourselves to soft, sobby tunes. Our symphony concerts are hard rock. There's a lot of spots in our concert where the symphony improvises in sections. There's one thing where I gave a percussion section a free improvisation section, and it worked out just fantastically.

MQ: What kind of reactions have you had to the ballet in various parts of the country?

PH: Audience and critics -- because to a certain extent critics are representative of audiences ... we found at as we travelled across the country, the whole west coast "cool" attitude ... as you get closer and closer to the coast you really get that more and more. Being basically an east coast band, and being used to east coast audiences, it becomes very obvious to us when we do a show and we see people glancing around to the sides wondering if it's the right time to clap or to give out or "Is it really hip to do this," and if they see somebody else doing it then it's really hip and it's really OK. It's just differences in social attitude, I guess. I think that on the west coast, people are just a little bit cooler, that's all. I think that shows with the critics as well. I think the critics -- well, from Vancouver, I'm just speaking about the two reviews I've seen today -- seem to me to have missed what was intended in Ballet High. I think that what Ballet High is about is not to blow people's minds or anything like that, but to open people up, and the dance-and-music combined experience is just a part of the performance. Another big part of the performance has to do with the audience, and unless the audience opens themselves up, and involve themselves, actively, not passively, then there's something missing from the performance. That's not the kind of thing you go in and tell an audience, because then you've defeated your purpose. Ballet High is the sort of thing with which we hope we can communicate and touch some people, and they can gain and we can gain. And we've been able to do that in some places. One of the things that we can do with Ballet High is that you get young people who've never been exposed to ballet before coming to see Lighthouse, being exposed to the ballet, and then going out and seeing regular ballets. And then the older people -- the ballet audiences -- have gotten a glimpse of what rock is and what their kids are into. One of the things that can happen, and has happened with something like Ballet High, is that parents and their children have come, and just by enjoying the same thing have had a point to relate to, something they could talk about, something they could both enjoy together, and in some cases, that would be the first sort of common ground that they could talk about for a number of years. And I think that's really a beautiful thing.