A conversation with William Ackerman

 

    We spoke with William Ackerman (Windham Hill Records, FLOW) about the jarring experience of playing in his first group, how loving the smell of lumber transpired into a successful contracting company, recording in the chapel he got married in and the story of how Windham Hill began.

       

    I’ve never had more fun doing what I’m doing. I think that’s in part because I’ve come to a place of peace with who I am and how I approach it.

    1

    Morgan Enos

    Given your long, eclectic career in music, it’s news to me that FLOW, your collaboration with Lawrence Blatt, Fiona Joy and Jeff Oster, is the first project you’ve ever worked on as a member of a group. Can you tell me what that experience was like? Was it jarring or rewarding to suddenly have three other personalities in the room that could approve or veto your ideas?

    William Ackerman

    It was incredibly threatening! The thing is, if someone comes in my studio, I require of them some trust, because their music will inevitably change in some ways. I guide them to areas they might not have thought of, or to something that was new to them and somewhat foreign. There was a point in this entire process with FLOW where I was actually feeling uneasy! Then there was a moment where I realized “That’s what I do to people all the time!” It was pretty great to come to that realization that these guys are not just throwing a little fairy dust on it and leaving it essentially intact. They’re going into the DNA of the song and changing the chromosomes.

    I’m proud of myself that I was able to reverse the mirror and say “Oh yeah, that’s what it is! That’s what producing is and that’s what’s happening to me now!” The thing that really excites me about this project is that it really is the synthesis of four individual players. I’m not saying I’m cynical, but I had no idea it would become so truly collaborative.

    2

    How would you describe your personality and demeanor to someone who’s never met you before, and how do you mesh with bandmates Lawrence, Fiona and Jeff?

    Whew! That’s a biggie. Obviously, other people would be better able to answer the first part of that. One of the realizations I came to, and it’s something I make very clear to all the people that I produce and it’s more or less my lecture to them, is that I will tell you my opinion in no uncertain terms, and I do expect you to listen to it. However, ultimately, you are in charge. Your opinion is one that matters more than anything else. That, to me, reflects a maturity in my life that I appreciate. I’m proud of myself for getting to the point where my ego pretty much vanished entirely from the production process.

    Yes, I do express my opinions in no uncertain terms. Certainly not loudly, but I want to earn peoples’ trust and typically I’m given it. I enjoy what I do now more than I ever have in my life, probably because ego has been removed from the equation. The loyalty that I receive from people means that most of the people you see who we produce come back, forever more of them. So, I think we’re doing something right. I would say that Tom Eaton, as engineer and now co-producer on everything, has given me a whole new lease on life. To work with Tom is the most enjoyable thing I’ve ever done.

    He and I have a system that I believe is unique in the record business. No one I’ve ever encountered, and that includes people like Steve Holley, Tony Levin and Premik Russell Tubbs and Jeff Haynes… we make all our decision in real time. We’re incredibly efficient in addition to being an amazing team. I can say in all honesty that I’ve never had more fun doing what I’m doing. I think that’s in part because I’ve come to a place of peace with who I am and how I approach it. I enjoy the friendship and talent of the most brilliant guy who ever worked with me to my left, and the musicians who we work with are all kind, lovely people who I love to see return to the studio.

    And furthermore, I’m on my third marriage of 20-something years, and this is one in which I fall more in love every week. So it’s a personal and professional life that has never, ever been better. While there are some indignities of age, if this is what 68 is, then I’m looking forward to 78. It’s honestly just getting better for me. Plus, I have the cutest dog in the world, so there you are.

    My first paying gig was at the Seattle Opera House for about 3,700 people. I had never been paid a nickel to play music for anyone.

    3

    My first encounters with your music were at the dawn of the jewel case CD era. Yours was a name I mostly knew in the back of my mind, but I rediscovered your tunes as an adult. What are your memories of operating Windham Hill Records during this era like? How has your music career changed since this time?

    Windham Hill was just sort of blessed. I keep writing chapters of this book that I ultimately want to release. I’m probably at 4,000 pages now… it’s going to need an editor more than anything else. But Windham Hill was almost inevitable, it seems.

    Here’s a guy who was a general contractor, and he had friends who liked what he was doing on the guitar and he collected five bucks from everybody to go to a studio. Here’s a little example: I needed a studio, so I looked in the Yellow Pages and saw Mantra Studios in San Mateo, CA. I thought “Mantra, OK, that’s got to be fairly hip,” so I drove up there and came to the door and pressed the buzzer. I saw somebody coming down on an old, beat-up linoleum floor and assumed it’s the engineer, but the guy walked past me… and my brain was kind of exploding. I walked down the same corridor into the studio and asked producer Scott Saxon “Is that…?” And he said “Yes, that’s Bing Crosby.” He was doing the Christmas record he did every year at the studio.

    I started playing guitar and Scott said into the talkback “You’re in here for free.” I’m like “What are you talking about?” And he said “I’m producing this record. You’re here for free.”

    The craziest thing of all – and believe me, there’s a book of these crazy-ass-stories – was when I was twelve, living next door to Michael Kilmartin. Michael was the kid you wanted to be when you grow up. He was 16 and the captain of the football team with a rock & roll band called the Debonaires. He put a Gibson Starburst electric guitar in my hand for the first time and taught me my first two chords, G and A minor.

    Then a million years went by, and in 1976 I had made this little record that was being sold in one store, the Plowshare Bookstore in Palo Alto, CA where my friends owned and ran it. A very sixties kind of deal. There was a turntable there and it was selling pretty well… I was surprised that people cared. One day, I was walking out of the store and up University Avenue and Michael Kilmartin, who I hadn’t seen in a million years, is walking down the street toward me.

    I was like “Michael, what a coincidence! I’d just done this little record and you’re the guy who taught me my first chords, so let me give you a copy!” And so I did, and he called me a few days later saying “Will, this is really good! Can I have ten of them?” So I invited him into the store and I did. A couple of weeks later, I called him out of curiosity, asking if he gave them to his friends. He said “Well, actually, I’m the radio promotion guy for Fantasy Records.” So understand, this is now with Creedence Clearwater Revival. Arguably the most radio promotion guy in the world. He told me he sent the copies to ten radio stations and that eight of them were playing it, with six of them listing it as “heavy airplay.” He told me “You’ve got to get on the phone with these guys and thank them for their support, and I need some more LPs.”

    The first guy I called on the list was John Kertzer, who was the music director at KZAM in Seattle. I said “Hello, is John Kertzer in?” and the guy who answered said “No, he’s not in right now, but I’m Jeff Heiman, the assistant music director.” I said “Well, my name’s Will Ackerman,” and he exclaimed “Who the fuck are you?! There’s a picture of a little girl on the cover (my sister, aged 3) and the phones are off the hooks! People are just going nuts here! They’re loving this record! What are you doing Saturday?” I said “I don’t know, probably pounding nails, I’m a general contractor.” So he said “Can you be in Seattle at 2pm on Saturday? It’s worth your while, just come on up here.” I said “Yeah, I guess I can!”

    So my cousin Alex DiGrassi, an insanely brilliant guitarist who was also my apprentice at Windham Hill Builders, and I drove up to Seattle. He had his guitar and I had mine, and we got into the station a little bit late. Jeff was frantic, saying “Follow me, follow me,” and I’m driving behind him looking at his license plate until we get to a place. He said “Grab your guitar and go in there!” and we walked in through a big door.

    And I walked out onto the stage at Seattle Opera House. I had never been paid a nickel to play music for anyone. My first paying gig was at the Seattle Opera House for about 3,700 people.

    That was emblematic, really, of what the entire Windham Hill experience was.

     

    Also, running into George Winston at a concert Alex and I were doing at McCabe’s in Santa Monica and George saying “Hey, do you want to play a little music this evening?” and offering to do a record with me. That night, I rolled my sleeping bag onto his couch and George said “Do you mind if I play the piano a little bit while you go to sleep?” and I said “That’s fine.” There was some stuff I recognized, some Bola Sete he had transcribed, but ultimately he got to the music that was his. In the morning I asked what the last pieces he was playing were, and mentioned that his piano stuff was amazing and we should do that before the guitar record I had in mind. He said “No, I want to do the guitar stuff first.”

    He drove me to the train station so I could head up to San Luis Obispo. Halfway to the train station, it was one side of guitar and the other side piano, and by the time I got to the train station, I said “George, I really, really want to do the piano record first.”

    That sort of insane, providential, lucky, instinctual stuff is what defined Windham Hill. I think it worked simply because it was never envisioned to be a moneymaking thing. It was really just a hobby of a guy who was running a quite successful contracting company, but I think that’s what made it work. It was sincere and willing to be considerably different from whatever else was going on, because it wasn’t trying to be a financially successful company. It was just a labor of love. That may sound naïve, but the whole story absolutely corroborates that sense of things.

    It goes on, I’m afraid. You’d be here the rest of the day.

     

    4

    I understand that you made your living as a carpenter before you joined the music business. Can you tell me about that and explain some specific woodworking techniques you enjoy?

    Well, I was about five units away from graduating at Stanford and dropped out. My father was the head of the English department at Stanford at that time. I had always been able to write anything, I mean, you could give me a topic and I would write something eloquent about it whether I knew anything about it or not. It didn’t always work or convince teachers that I knew what I was talking about, but often it did. In the spring of my senior year at Stanford, I literally ran out of words. You couldn’t squeeze another word out of me, and that was the easiest thing in the world for me. Basically, I could bullshit my way through almost anything.

    Without really analyzing the reason for that, one thing sort of came out loud and clear, which is “You have to drop out of Stanford now.” So, I went to my dad and said that I was. He actually ended up quitting Stanford at the end of that quarter because he said the only reason he’d stayed there so long was to give me free tuition.

    Looking back on it, I realized that my whole life had been preordained in some sense, that I would become like my father and mother as an English professor. That had never been challenged. More in my subconscious mind than my rational frontal lobes, I think something in me said “Wait a minute, you can’t just get in line. You can’t just go lockstep into this thing. You’ve got to see some other part of the world.” And again, that was not an objectified thought, but that was precisely what was going on.

    At the time, Stanford was endowed with a whole lot of land. Leland Stanford was one of the Big Six in the railroad business in the 1800s and had essentially bought all the land from the San Francisco Bay up to Skyline Boulevard and was incredibly land-rich. One of the hills I used to play on as a kid, Pine Hill, was now being completely covered with faculty housing. The deal they were offering to professors at Yale and Harvard, for instance, was “We will give you land and loan you the money interest-free to build a house here in Palo Alto, where it doesn’t snow.” That was the beginning of the real rise of Stanford University.

    But the hill I used to play on, Pine Hill, was now being filled with these new houses. While I resented them, I would walk into those houses and love the smell of lumber. I recently talked to somebody else who said the same thing, which is why I went into building. I started stealing lumber from these places and going up into the hills to build these really, really elaborate treehouses with windows. I was stealing windows! I just found myself liking lumber. Suzanne’s father was a backhoe operator up in the Sierra foothill, and through him I had an interview with a Norwegian boat-builder-turned-ship’s-carpenter who hired me at minimum wage.

    There’s a wonderful, incredibly long story of mine which I’m not going to regale you with right now, but the net result of that was I ended up being an apprentice to a guy who had been a Norwegian boat builder. Squares and simple angles were child’s play to this guy. He was a brilliant, brilliant builder, and he understood that I was there to learn and that I didn’t give a fuck what the wage was and didn’t care. I just wanted to learn from him. He completely took me under his wing and taught me everything so that when it was time for me to head back down the hill to Palo Alto and get my first contractor’s license, I was prepared to compete with pretty much anyone out there.

    So, I founded Windham Hill Builders and had a very good career going with that.

    5

    In older interviews, you’ve dismissed the term “new age” entirely. But, I’d like to focus on the positive aspect of the style, which I think has a unique psychological power. How can a listener benefit from very meditative, calm instrumental music?

    I think it was less the definition of the term than that Windham Hill had essentially been an entity unto itself. When the major labels looked at Windham Hill and realized there was money to be made in music like that, they all started labels that in many cases had no center to them, that were imitating what we were doing. That what I resented about new age. It was the co-opting of something by all the major labels. I talked to a number of labels before signing with A&M, which was largely a result of the fact that Herb Alpert was the “A” of A&M who started an artist-owned record label. I found that Herb really understood my concerns.

    But at the time, I was talking with pretty much all the major labels and I will not name names, but there was a guy at Capitol Records who I had been negotiating with, I met Geffen, I met everybody, and I made my decision and called everybody, and one of these guys at Capitol said “Ah, we don’t need you anyway. All we’ve got to do is get a piano player and put a lot of white on the cover.” It was that level of cynicism that exploded the whole new age thing for me. So again, it’s not the problem with the music. It was the problem with major labels jumping in and trying to co-opt the thing, which I resented.

    And I certainly don’t mean to imply that Windham Hill was the only source of good music to come out of the genre. That would be preposterous and of course, it’s not true, nor can you ignore Paul Horn’s Inside (1968) or some of the work Keith Jarrett was doing. Keith would have never been happy being subsumed in any part of new age. But the Köln concert, I mean, come on, that was hugely important to me, and I don’t think I would have changed the editing on “Colors/Dance” into the long song it became unless I had heard Keith Jarrett’s Köln concert. There was other fine, fine music.

    Not to mention, of course, the Tacoma records with John Fahey and Leo Kottke and Robbie Basho and so on. It would be preposterous for me to say that we were the only bastion of thoughtful, heartfelt instrumental music. But we became a very, very obvious example of it working for all the right reasons. There was no advertising budget or anything. The music happened because it happened. The music happened because it wanted to be in the marketplace.

     

    The notion that I’m sitting around in some idyll writing music is sheer horseshit. I can’t write a note at home.

    6

    I understand that you once visited John Fahey to ask him if one of your guitar compositions sounded too much like his, “The Last Steam Engine Train.” Can you tell me about your memories and experiences of the late Fahey?

    That was not actually in person, it was sent to him. But John basically said “Yeah, you ripped me off on that one, but yours is different and it’s pretty good.” There was never any territorial stuff with John. He and I would bump into each other and everything. John was a complex and difficult character, but he was always very sweet to me.

    My memories of him are of hanging out with him after a gig, but him being already pretty drunk and getting drunker. Some pretty funny stories about gigs and that sort of thing. Looking at his work, and of course Kottke and Basho who really had more influence on me than any of those other guys, I was in awe and deeply admiring of everything he had made. But John himself was a very, very troubled guy who you didn’t particularly want to hang with a whole lot. He’d get to the point where he was just slurring words.

    I remember one time at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, he turned up already seriously drunk, did two songs and said he had to go to the bathroom, got up and never came back. I wouldn’t say that he did that all the time, but he did it. He was a difficult guy.

    7

    Finally, I understand that you had gone through a period of musical dormancy before you recorded the FLOW material – can you describe what this kind of rebirth was like for you? And from there, what do you see as being next for you, personally and creatively?

    Before FLOW, it had been essentially five years since I had written any music. People come to the studio and they remark on the incredible physical beauty of the place, the 300 acres. There were seven hundred other acres that I donated to the nature conservancy because I didn’t want to pay taxes, I just wanted to make sure nobody builds on it. So there’s huge, huge space, beautiful forest land with a beautiful stream. It’s absolutely a beautiful place in all seasons, obviously fall being the most miraculous.

    People turn up there and say “Ah, man, it must be so meditative for you!” And it’s like “Dude, I’ve got 282 acres that I do all the forestry work on.” I’m doing a new roof on the guest house. I have to mow all the lawns. My wife is an organic grower and raises chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys. There’s farm work to do constantly. So the notion that I’m sitting around in some idyll writing music is sheer horseshit. I can’t write a note at home.

    So I got to a point where it’s like “OK, maybe it’s over!” I was really, really, honestly at peace with that. It’s like, come on, you’re producing, you wrote “Impending Death of the Virgin Spirit.” You wrote “The Bricklayer’s Beautiful Daughter.” You don’t have to prove anything to everybody. I was honestly at peace with that, it’s like “It could be over, that’s OK! You’re doing all this other great stuff.”

       

    And I said well, look, what I’m going to do is go to the most beautiful place on earth which is Positano, Italy, and I’m going to go sit in the apartment… it’s a long story. I have a relationship with the Russo family in Positano, it’s home away from home for me. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it’s the most beautiful town in the world. So I go there and Bob Taylor sends me a guitar I can use while I’m there so I don’t have to spend 14, 1500 bucks bringing my guitar for me. They do action for me, so it’s nice that Bob sent me that.

    I set up the video cameras and sat down, invented a new tuning, and that day I wrote five songs. I wrote 19 songs in the twelve days I was there and I was like, “Okay! I guess it’s not over!”

    And when FLOW happened and they asked “What have you got?” I turned on the first videotape and the first songs that were on the videotape were the ones we chose. We didn’t even go through the rest. We just said “Okay, those are good! Let’s just go with that!” So there’s still a bunch of songs that I wrote, and a bunch of skeleton versions of things that I hadn’t filled out but I know will have all the parts that will be necessary to turn them into finished pieces. I was talking to Tom and said “You know, I’ve got this recording studio and it’s great, but it would be so cool to go to Positano and record!”

    We called my friend who’s got a part of his house that’s a cave, and he said “Yeah, you can set up in the cave and record there!” I will send you a picture of the chapel in which Susan and I were married in Nocelle, which is a village up above Positano, and Tom said “Why don’t we record in the chapel you were married in?” I said “Well, what are the chances of the Roman Catholic Church giving us the ability to do that?” So I called my friend up to ask him to talk to the priest and he called back and said “Yeah! Five nights a week, you’re good!”

    I’m literally getting chills right now thinking about this. The pieces I wrote in my second home being recorded there in the chapel I was married in with Tom Eaton as the engineer – I mean, come on. It doesn’t get a lot better than that!

    And I’m on a first-name basis with so many people in town. When I come into town – I am a creature of habit in some large respect – and walk into Buca di Bacco for lunch, the guys look at me and kind of shrug their shoulders a little bit like there’s a question, I nod my head and they bring my pomodorini. Then I go downstairs and there’s the guy with the gelato, and maybe I haven’t seen him for three years. He just looks at me, and same thing, I go “Yep!” and then I get my gelato with vanilla on the bottom and coffee on the top. There’s a girl who runs the shaved ice place in the town center. The price is 3.50 and she hands me the ice and one back because local price is 2.50.

    We go through this thing every time because it makes me so happy to be regarded as a local. I have a whole community there, so having these folks be almost the players on a stage, that’s my world there. I want to convey that in video and photography so that people can feel this place that is so inspirational to me. That’s what’s happening next in my life, and I think it’s going to be just incredible.

     

    Thank you.

    Data


    Conversation: 50
    Curated by: Morgan Enos
    Conducted by: Email
    Published: October 23, 2017
    Total questions: 7
    Word count: 4289
    Reading time: Fifteen minutes
    Hyperlinks: 15
    Lumber: Yes
    Fahey: Drunk
    Property: Miraculous
    Pomodorini: Emblematic
    Balance: Magical

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