THE PLANETS ONE – INTERVIEW WITH ALAN RAMIREZ – VOCALIST AND BASS PLAYER WITH AL ROSS AND THE PLANETS
Q - Firstly, congratulations on the brilliant new album "The Planets One".
Thank you...thank you very much.
Q - How come you decided to go to Abbey Road and make an album after so many years of working together?
Al Ross & The Planets were primarily a live rhythm and blues band. We were always a brilliant live band with amazing energy on stage, but Alex and I had written some great songs together over the years and it always bothered me that they had not seen the light of day. Also my wife Fiona and my Mum kept pestering me to do something with the tracks, and Paulie Miller was a huge fan of the demos I had played him - so he pushed me into doing something with them. I had encouraged Paul to develop his songwriting and he had some tracks he wanted to do so we decided to reform the Planets, start gigging again and go to the very best place in the world to record them - Studio 2 Abbey Road.
Q - You recorded the album in 4 sessions at Abbey Road. Listening to the album, that seems incredible. How did you manage to make the album sound so good in such a short space of time?
Well I read somewhere that the Beatles in the early days were very disciplined and would record three songs in a day or something to that effect. We took the same approach. It helped that we are great musicians and have been playing live together for years. We had the songs worked out and recorded a lot of the tracks live and just managed it well. We also had 2 sessions at Echo Studios in Oxfordshire to help with fine tuning some vocals and overdubs. But we were very disciplined and I enjoyed that side to it - efficient use of time.
Q - But the results sound amazing when you consider that some bands take three years to record an album. You recorded a couple of tracks completely live, but then you have complex production numbers involving gospel choirs, brass instruments and big production. How did you manage to achieve that so quickly?
We used the best people in the business such as Chris Bolster from Abbey Road who engineered and mixed the album, and Alex Wharton - also from Abbey Road - who mastered the album for us. Also Paul Pritchard who stood in for Chris on one of the recording sessions. Alex (Mungo) is also a great producer and very talented musician and of course having him there helped enormously. He had worked with Then Jerico and with Guy Chambers among others, so he has great experience.
Alex and I go back a very long way and are on the same wave length musically, so that all helped to achieve the sounds we wanted under strict time constraints. It felt very satisfying to work so efficiently.
Q - One thing that struck me is the diversity of the album - its as if there are 4 vocalists in the band each with their own individual style. That is quite unusual for a band today when most bands have one lead vocalist. You were always the lead vocalist in the Planets, so how come there are four vocalists on the album?
In the early days I pretty much sang all lead vocals and played bass. However as the band developed I wanted to use the Beatles model of having two front men, and a third vocalist and occasional fourth vocalist to give a bit more variety to the band. I think that really works in the Planets as it shows off each character and different vocal styles but all within the same musical framework. Also on a couple of the tracks we did some nice joint vocals which work great, so I think that listening to the album will be a much more rewarding experience than if you just had me singing. Also those guys can sing well, so I see it as a major strength.
Q - Of the eleven tracks, seven are written by you and Alex, three by Paulie M and one by George. How long have you and Alex been writing together?
Alex and I have always been very close. He was always a very talented song writer and musician and has written loads of songs over the years. I remember in the late 1980s going around to his flat in Clapham with a song I had written - " My love for you" which was one of the first songs I ever wrote back in 1983. He helped me finish it and turn it into a proper song and I remember feeling very upbeat about the whole experience. A bit later I went around with another of my songs "In the middle of the night" and he helped me turn that into a great blues / gospel number that I am very proud of, and which will appear on our follow up album. I remember that inspired him to write "Wonderland" which I helped him with. After that he rejoined the Planets and we used to rehearse with Disney (Paul Freeney - drummer) and the brilliant guitarist Steve Hopwood who was in the Planets at the time - and we would jam ideas and turn them into songs.
Around 1998 we started writing together closely - I would come up with a melody and song and he would help me finish it, or he would come up with a song and I would perhaps add a middle eight and some lyrics and suddenly we had hit a magic formula. Some great songs came out of that period such as " Crossroads", "Faith", "The river" and many others. I am really pleased that we have recorded some of these tracks and they are seeing the light of day. More recently, he came over to my place one evening with the basis of what eventually became "no connection". I think we finished it off in half an hour - so yes, we write really well together and I look forward to writing some great new music with him in the future.
Q - Paul (Miller) has also written three songs for the album. Did you and Alex help him write these or did he write them purely on his own?
Actually Paul has been writing songs on his own for years but always kept it quiet. He would write his songs on his piano at home in the style of a singer /songwriter but told very few people about them. We became friends about 9 years ago and I heard through another friend that he was writing. Anyway he played me some and I was very impressed and I encouraged him to record them for posterity. When he joined the Planets he had " Walking in circles" which we helped turn into a finished product. I believe this encouraged him to start writing more on a less personal level, and he is always up for trying new sounds that the band has interpreted - so George was very keen to put an Oasis / Beatles Revolver era style of guitar on what was originally a ballad (In my world), he also took on board my idea of using a gospel choir on 2 of his tracks, and Alex came up with some great ideas such as harpsichord which have really given those songs an interesting edge. So he usually brings in a finished melody with lyrics but is happy for the rest of us to go to town on them to create an interesting Planets vibe.
Q - George has also written a song for the album and sings on it. How long have you been working with George?
George and I met back in the late nineties. We got along really well as we share the same sense of humour and taste in music – we are huge fans of the Beatles, Stones, Dylan etc. He really appreciates great music and is always listening to music in his free time and his knowledge of music is incredible. When I introduced him to Alex it just clicked musically. George is very influenced by the great sixties bands and he could interpret exactly what we were thinking of in terms of guitar parts. I remember we would play him the songs we had written and he would just come up with these great guitar lines that just worked so that was it - he became a Planet.
Q - What was it like to record at Abbey Road Studios?
It was a great experience - there is no better studio in the world. We actually recorded all the sessions in Studio 2 which was very special. Chris Bolster is one of the truly great Engineers and he did a brilliant job and was great company - he is outrageously funny which relaxed us but he also made us focus on the tracks. He went above and beyond the call of duty and I will always be grateful to him for doing such a brilliant job. On one of the sessions we also worked with Paul Pritchard who was very encouraging, a great laugh and got great performances out of us. They really are the best in the world and it was a pleasure and privilege to work with them.
I remember on the first session being completely overwhelmed by recording in the same space where John (Lennon) and Paul (McCartney) pretty much changed the world. By the second session it felt a bit like coming home. Having access and recording with the pianos and the Hammond organ that the Beatles used was magical. The Beatles are a very important part my life and there is a vibe/ atmosphere when you go into Studio 2 - I cannot describe it but it's very special - it certainly made us step up to the mark. When Chris told me that the microphone I was using was one that John Lennon particularly liked, it blew me away.
Q - Al Ross and the Planets started out in the eighties when you were all very young. I understand that all four founding members were present at the first recording session?
That is correct. Alex, Disney (Paul Freeney) and I were of course there, and we asked our old friend and founding member Andrea Gottardo Allen to come and hang out with us. He is a record producer now so it was great to have his input on that session.
Q - Dave Brammer on sax is also another member from the old days.
Yes - he was playing with us back in the early days and we met up again out of the blue when we played the Roof Gardens a couple of years ago. He is a brilliant sax and flute player, shares our sense of humour and is one of the nicest, most positive persons you will ever meet. He is always smiling and he played brilliantly on the album.
Q - As well as Paul Freeney on drums, you also have Terry Mascall playing on some of the tracks. Is there any reason for this?
Unfortunately Paulie was sick for the third session so Terry very kindly offered to help us. He is a truly outstanding drummer and it was a pleasure to work with him. He did a brilliant job on the day.
Q - You and Paul Freeney have been a rhythm section for years - how would you sum up your partnership?
Disney (Paul Freeney) is a brilliant drummer. He knows me and my bass playing style inside out - we instinctively click and he keeps me in check when I start freaking out on stage. He always keeps the band under control and is one of the funniest persons I have ever hung out with. He is also brutally honest which you need sometimes. He is one of my closest friends and I love playing music with him - he has been there since the very beginning and is one of the greats.
Q - You also teamed up with Bert " Fred Feast" Routledge - another former Planet for the sessions. Do you still work together?
Feast is a great harmonica and keyboard player - and also a brillaint singer. He has joined the Planets on stage a few times to play harmonica and sing with us. He and his friend Josh Cadman run "Sing Gospel". They lead a great gospel choir and I asked them to come down and help us with two of Paul M's tracks. They were a lovely bunch of people and we had a great session with them. Feasts’s Dad Keith was also in the choir and it was a special privilege to work with him and have him there.
Q - David Levin from Los Angeles also appears on the album. Had you worked together before?
We met David through George. He is a brilliant acoustic guitar player and producer with many years experience of playing and recording in the US. He also has an amazing guitar collection! He plays on all the tracks except "Wonderland" and was a great source of help. His playing really stands out on many of the tracks and provides a richness and warmth to the overall sound. He kept that rhythm going on “My love for you” which was no mean feat for 8 minutes. He taught us a lot and we all enjoyed hanging out with him.
Q – Tim Connell also plays bass on two of the tracks?
Yes – Tim is a brilliant bass player who actually used to cover for me in the early days of the Planets if I wasn’t around. He is one of the nicest most helpful people you will ever meet and I remember that he always used to compliment me on being able to play bass and sing at the same time. I was keen to have different musicians play on the album to give it an interesting edge, so I invited him to play on two of the tracks. He has worked with all of us at one time or another, so it was great to work with him again. He plays a mean double bass on “LBJ” which really makes that track, and some wonderful, subtle bass on “Talk to me” which works beautifully.
Q - You open the album with a live version of "My love for you". It is an incredible piece of work bearing in mind it was totally spontaneous and you recorded it in just 2 takes. Can you tell us how that came about?
"My love for you" was a track that I particularly liked. We originally wrote that as early as 1983, and we recorded a really nice version with Lyndon Connah in 1998. Lyndon is a brilliant producer and musician who has worked with many of the greats and we enjoyed working with him. He taught us so much and he became a good friend. We also recorded a version with some hip-hop producers - a great singer called Chantelle Duncan (who Lyndon introduced me to) sang on that.
For this album version, I had been jamming it with the others and a really nice blues vibe was starting to emerge. I wanted one of the tracks on "The Planets One" to be 100% live to capture that great cavernous Abbey Road Studio 2 sound. I wanted people to think about the live "Miles Davis - Kind of blue" sound when they heard this one.
Originally I had asked our friend Tim Connell to play double bass but unfortunately he could not make the session, so I ended up having to sing and play bass at the same time. I remember saying to the others to just feel the track, vibe out and see where it goes. We turned the lights right down in Studio 2 - and it was just a great vibe. I messed up Take one but Take 2 was pretty much perfect and that is what you hear on the record. I am very proud of that track because it's real and it's just us playing live in the greatest recording studio in the world. I thought that we all excelled on this - it starts off quietly and takes a life of its own and you want to know where it goes. Terry on drums, Dave on sax and Alex really delivered the goods on that one - I love that wonderful sound Alex got on the Steinway Grand piano.
I did not want to open the album with a slick production number. We have always been known as a live band and I wanted that to come across from the start of the album - I wanted listeners to feel that they were in the same room as us and to experience the Planets playing live. I believe we achieved that.
Q - "Wonderland" is a song that you used to play in the early days - is that correct?
Yes - this was mainly Alex's song with a bit of help from me. We always loved this one and used to play it as a slower number and it always got a good response. I always liked the way it became jazzy in the middle. That is just Alex on the Steinway and doing lead vocals, me on bass, George on guitar and Paulie on drums. It's pretty much a live track and a nice follow on to "My love for you". We did that during our first session and we were all a bit overawed at recording in Studio 2. I think we nailed this on the third take.
Q - "The River" for me is one of the stand out tracks on the album. It is not live, but was quite a big production number. What can you tell us about "The River"?
Alex and I pretty much wrote this one 50 /50 around 2001. He had the initial chords and I came up with the Middle 8 and the lyrics. I remember at the time reading John Grisham's book "A painted house". I enjoyed reading it - it was totally different from his legal thrillers - so I used that as the inspiration for the lyrics. It's set on a cotton farm in rural Arkansas hence the line "cotton picking season". I wanted to take that line out but George insisted it was the best line in the song so it stayed. I was keen to write a song about a book or a film - something a bit different - and this was the result.
Q - That is a really nice lead vocal you came up with. I heard from the others that you struggled with it during recordings - is that true?
Yes - we recorded this during our third session. I remember I could not get a good vocal so we moved on to another track. I went down to Echo Studios a month later with Paulie M, and the extremely talented Jamie Masters helped me get that final vocal. After that George laid down slide guitar and Alex did some nice keyboard work. I really like that you can hear all the instruments properly, and that it sounds dreamy – we wanted it to sound a bit like Strawberry Fields. David did a lovely acoustic guitar take on that one.
Q - "Walking in circles" was the first track that you recorded at Abbey Road and was Paul M's song. It's very interesting musically and features you and Alex singing with Paul.
There is a lot going on in that track. It was the first one to be recorded. Paul told me that sometimes the daily grind of running his business could get him down and that it was like going around in circles and quite frustrating - this inspired him to write this and its 100% him. George is playing a Doors type guitar riff, I am playing a Beatles type bass line and we got Dave Brammer to play electric flute on the solo. Alex plays the Steinway and the Hammond organ that Billy Preston used on the later Beatles albums. Then Alex and I put some nice Brian Wilson like harmonies at the end of the track. Its very interesting musically and has great energy. It sort of kicks things up a bit at this point in the album and most of it was recorded live in two takes.
Q - Paul was the newest member to join the Planets. It must have been pretty daunting for him to join at this stage of the game?
I was singing most of the vocals during live gigs and wanted to focus just on the bass playing in certain places, so wanted to have another singer to share vocals with Alex and I. Paul was keen to record some of his tracks with a band so it all came together. It must have been very daunting for him to join a band with so many egos! He pulled it off though and one of the great things about working with him is that he was receptive to our ideas on his tracks - we were able to experiment which was cool.
Q - Probably your most controversial song is "Love is murder" - one of George's?
It's great because it's original, it's an anti love song and essentially a very cheeky track. I think George wanted to write something Hitchcockian, so a bit like a murder film put to music which is certainly different! You can hear the homage to Bernd Herrmann's score for Hitchcock's psycho at the start and end of the song. The concept is that a bloke decides to murder his missus and he gets away with it so it's very dark but also tongue in cheek. Disney (Paul Freeney) tells me this is his favourite track of the album. It's interesting musically as George and Paulie M share vocals and it's the only track with strings on it. I love George's guitar work on this one - it's a very clever 3 minute track. Only George could have written that!
Q - Side 2 starts with LBJ. This is about President Lyndon Johnson and is kind of a political biography which is an interesting addition to the album. What influenced you to write this?
Years ago I saw an excellent documentary about Lyndon Johnson - he was the US President who succeeded JFK after his assassination. It struck me that he was probably the best and most effective President on domestic policy that the US had in the last century - he did more for civil rights and poor people than any other US President. He was a fascinating character and a great politician, but things went horribly wrong for him with the Vietnam war. Some very bad decisions were made, but he was essentially a good man who started from nothing and genuinely cared about poor people. I was moved to write about him. I played it to the others who helped me finish the song and Alex and Paul gave it a more blue grass Southern feel which I liked. We asked the great bass player Tim Connell to play double bass on this and he turned out a great part. Alex played some banjo to give it that extra southern feel - it's quite a heavy track.
Q - Have you written any other political biographies?
We did one years ago about President Nixon called "No whitewash at the Whitehouse" - now you mention it, we might try and resurrect that some time.
Q - Your voice goes a bit weird in the middle part of the song...
Yes - I wanted Chris Bolster to make me sound like John Lennon on "Tomorrow never knows" for that bit crossed with someone protesting through a megaphone - we actually brought a megaphone into the studio and I sang that through it!
Q - Next up is "No connection" which you and Alex wrote. It sounds like a homage to sixties Motown - what is it about?
Alex recently had a date with a girl and thought it had gone well. When he called her again she blew him out saying that she didn't feel they connected. A couple of days letter he came around to see me and Fiona - he was a bit pissed off about it, but he had this basic melody and I suggested we write a track about them not connecting. We wrote it in about thirty minutes. We wanted it to sound like one of the Atlantic soul type tracks the Planets play live, so there are a few nods to some of the greats that have inspired us. It's a bit tongue in cheek retro but it was good fun to record and it's one of my wife Fiona's favourite tracks on the album.
Q - You have a brass section on the track and a guest appearance from Jeremy Huffelmann on guitar - correct?
Yes - Jeremy is a great guitarist and has become a close friend of mine. He hadn’t played for a while so I invited him to play something on “No Connection”. He had very little time on the session but he turned out this great lead guitar solo riff in one take. He had to leave straight after but what he did was perfect and it's on the album. That track was pretty much wrapped up during the third Abbey Road session and was really good fun to record.
Q - "Where does your love go" is another Alan /Alex track. Can you tell me a bit about it?
I seem to remember this being pretty much a 50 / 50 track. This was David Levin's favourite song of the lot and he thought we should push this as our single. It's a nice upbeat track with a good vibe and it's catchy. Quite hard to sing though as the key is very high for me. We pretty much recorded it live and I overdubbed the vocal. A nice memory is me, Alex , Paul Freeney and Trevor Anderson doing hand claps to the backing in Studio 2. I always liked George's guitar playing on that one.
Q - on "The Message" were you trying to make a political statement?
This is Paul M's song. He wrote this in one go when everyone was talking about Brexit. I think he was pretty much telling people to think for themselves when voting and not listen to all the protest groups and factions of the media, so I suppose it is a bit anti political, but you would need to clarify that with him. This is another one we experimented on - Alex is playing harpsichord and Fender Rhodes, Dave plays a killer sax solo, we had the Sing Gospel choir come down and do their thing. It's got a very catchy hook and was good fun to record.
Q - "In my world" is pretty epic sounding!
Yes - this is another Paul baby. We thought it would be good to really up the epic factor on this and the gospel choir did an outstanding job on that one. Paul Freeney plays great drums and George beefed up the sound with his Oasis meets Revolver guitar sounds. Paul writes catchy melodies and it was nice to experiment with this one. I remember when Josh was leading the choir in Studio 2 he played the song in its simplest form on the Steinway piano and it sounded amazing - one of those stand and listen moments.
Q - Finally "Talk to me" which you and Alex wrote and is one of my favourites. Why did you use this song to close the album?
We knew this one was special and Alex does a great vocal on it. There are some nice harmonies from the two of us. We wanted to end the album on a real high. We wanted to out epic "In my world" and I think we managed it. When we were mastering the album with the great Alex Wharton he really beefed up the final chord which makes the track fade into the distance at the end, and it's a hell of a trip.
Q - What is it about?
On one hand it's about communicating and getting your loved one to talk face to face rather than not communicating or resorting to text messaging. Its also a passionate story about obsession and searching and finding the person of your dreams. It's a complex one and I always thought the lyrics were very powerful.
Q - Did you record this one live?
No - it was quite a big production number but we pretty much recorded it over 2 of the sessions at Abbey Road and an extra day at Echo Studios.
Q - Is there any particular track that stands out for you?
I like all of them but probably "My love for you" is very special because it captured a great moment in the studio. But I also really like "The river" and "Talk to me". It's a matter of taste but all eleven are great songs, and there is real variety which keeps it interesting.
Q - How important was the order of tracks for you?
Actually it was key - I can still remember listening to the great albums of the 60s and 70s as a listening experience - I wanted this album to be a well thought out and great listening experience. Hopefully it manages to flow in the right direction from start to finish and people will enjoy it.
Q – What were the thoughts behind the artwork on the album cover?
I did not want to have a picture of the band on the cover of the album. Nammie from our PR team came up with an interesting idea which we liked, of sound waves coming from a speaker, where the waves, and a planet, were orbiting the speaker. We asked our friend - the brilliant photographer Scott Margetts – to see if he could develop this a bit further which he did. I was always a huge fan of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 – a Space Odyssey, so I asked Scott to see whether he could perhaps incorporate something of that into the design, and what you see is his vision.
He took quite a few pictures of us at Abbey Road when we were making the album, and he chose an interesting shot of us listening to a playback in the control room of Studio 2 during our third session for the back cover. I was ok with that as it’s a very natural shot. I am very grateful to Scott – he believes in the music and is a huge fan of the band. His photography is amazing and it has been a great privilege to have someone of his talent work with us.
Q - What next for Al Ross and the Planets?
The album is being released on 16 March and we have an old member of the Planets – Julian Mungo (who is Alex’ elder brother) back in the fold – he has taken on acoustic guitar. We need to promote this album and spread the word. We will continue to perform live and our plan is to get back to the studios later this year and start recording a second follow up album – we have enough material already so I am very much looking forward to that.
Q – Congratulations again - It's a great album and will undoubtedly stand the test of time. All the very best of luck with the record.