Tuesday, August 10, 2010

RIP Chris Dedrick of the Free Design

(I just wanted to post this old interview I did with Chris Dedrick of the Free Design. It used to be on my old Beach Boys-and-Sunshine-Pop website the Smile Shop. Chris was a genius and one of my all time favorite songwriters and it is absolutely terrible that he's died at such a young age.)

When Matt Sullivan at Light in the Attic records contacted me about doing an interview with Chris Dedrick of the Free Design, I immediately leapt at the opportunity. "Great," I said to myself, "now's my chance to do the definitive Free Design interview, and ask him everything I've been meaning to ask." Of course, when my questions were all written out and sent, it amounted to about two pages of questions -- a daunting amount for anybody! So Mr. Dedrick will be answering them in installments -- hopefully when all is said and done, it will be the definitive Free Design interview!

Let's get the history stuff out of the way first: obviously with a musical father, you must've all sung together a lot growing up, but where'd you get the idea of starting a group with your family members? Had you played in other groups before starting your own, or was the Free Design your first experience with the group dynamic?

The Free Design was the first real group experience, other than playing in a jazz trio for a summer, or my dad's dance band in my high school days. I had only sung with Bruce and Sandy in church choir. When I attended the Manhattan School of Music, I was for the first time since childhood, in proximity to them; it was mostly Bruce's enthusiasm for folk music that pulled us together for some fun on weekends. We went home for Christmas; I wrote out a song in a three-voice arrangement — we sang it and began to see that we had an interesting sound "identity". That seemed to be the seed.

What kind of an impact did the 60s music scene have on you? What groups do you remember influencing the sound of the early albums?

Just about anything on the radio was going to have some influence. I particularly liked Motown music because it often showcased some very good arranging, had a great rhythmic feel, and the songs had real melodies. In general, melody writing was much more valued than it seems to be in large areas of pop music today. Think of Burt Bacharach, Laura Nyro, Simon and Garfunkel; everytime I see a movie or hear a radio show with some oldies, memories kick in and I realize that there is another song that kind of lives in my bank of references and influences.

You've covered a few Beatles songs along the way -- what did the Beatles mean to you as a group?

At first I couldn't see what all the fuss was about. Their first hit singles didn't excite or move me -- in fact they were like a minor irritation on the thick skin of my youthful artistic snobbery. Then I turned around and when I looked back they were coming out with Yesterday, Penny Lane, Eleanor Rigby...I started to love their music. At one point the Abbey Road album was my number one. They conceived (with help from people around them) of some great musical and lyrical statements, mixed in with cracked humor, appropriate goofing around, and constant change. I was hooked.

How did people perceive you in the 60s -- what other bands did you find yourselves lumped in with, and who in particular did you feel you fit in with? Did you have any contact with some of the "baroque pop" groups like the Left Banke or the Association?

We were simply perceived by too few people. What goes around comes around: we loved the Hi-Lo's, a great jazz vocal group, and it's been said that we were "dug" by the Association and the Singers Unlimited, both having Hi-Lo's roots. It's also been said that the Carpenters liked our stuff. Oh -- that's the next question.

Do you think groups like the Carpenters kind of took the Free Design sound to the bank, as it were? Is that frustrating or flattering?

Neither, really. Music-making is a constant cross-pollination and conversation, translation and fascination, appealing and stealing, re- using and abusing that is endlessly going on amongst everybody. Or on some rare occasion, it's a single act of almost divine inspiration -- still having to be expressed in sounds and languages made available via the above processes.

Did you consider yourselves avant garde or experimental, or were those tags that were applied more later as people went back and listened to your music?

Anyone who thinks they are avant garde is probably too stuck in intellect; music that lasts is usually not an experiment, but an experience. And tags should be endings, not descriptions. I'm grateful the Free Design music is still around and bringing some enjoyment to some people. The labels are just for fun.

"Kites are Fun" and a handful of other songs (and, well, the entire "Sing For Very Important People" album!) espouse a brilliantly naive and child-like worldview. What attracts you to themes like that?

"Beginner mind" as the Zen Bhuddists call it. "Only as a little child..." as Christians like to quote. I was always interested in the connection between what we called heaven and what we saw as earth. I didn't edit myself very much in those days (as I tend to do now) and for better or worse, no one else was editing me either. I wasn't far from being a kid when I wrote much of that material. We're all many- sided creatures -- dark side, light -- morose and funny. Sometimes we have observations or ideas that are worth expressing. The songs always say something about the songwriter, but not usually what you think they say. That pretty well takes care of what I can say to the next question (which regarded the "sardonic side" of the band -- ed.).

That's it for the moment. I'll dig in again soon. Hope these remarks are of some interest!