Van Dyke Parks: “I was honoured to throw confetti on Silverchair’s parade”

You may not be familiar with his name, but Van Dyke Parks’ orchestrations and lyrical whimsy have shaped records by Silverchair, The Beach Boys, Rufus Wainwright and U2, writes DOUG WALLEN.

He’s worked with everyone, and I mean everyone. The impossible-looking CV of American composer/arranger Van Dyke Parks bridges the gaps between Skrillex and Joanna Newsom, Frank Zappa and U2. As a child actor, he even co-starred in Grace Kelly’s final film, High Society).

Even without all the buoyant arrangements he’s penned over the decades – including on the last two Silverchair albums – the man would be immortalised simply for his role as lyricist on The Beach Boys’ abandoned-then-redeemed opus Smile. He’s also put out solo albums (including 1967’s Song Cycle and 1972’s Discover America) that overflow with his affection for whimsical melodies and the natural way that music travels across and throughout different cultures. He’s as likely to reference church hymns as obscure calypso heroes.

Why are we talking about this now? Because Van Dyke is as busy as ever. He has launched his own label, Bananstan, which has released six vinyl singles and compiled some of his best work for Arrangements, Volume 1. Now, after touring Australia with Kinky Friedman in 2011, he’s back this week for a prime spot at the Adelaide Festival. He’ll be joined by Silverchair’s Daniel Johns, Kimbra and Adelaide Art Orchestra, but you can be sure that whatever happens, it will be unexpected and life-affirming in equal measure. As an interviewee, Parks is a font of quips and quotes, bursting with dry wit and huge heart. He’s a lot of fun, even if he can be awfully hard to keep up with.

I interviewed you before your last Australian visit. It’s good to talk to you again.

Well, you know what Mozart say once, which I really love? “I’m paid to repeat myself.” When someone caught him repeating a phrase. You must think I’m pretty redundant. How can you miss if I won’t leave?

It was fun seeing you in Melbourne with Kinky Friedman.

Yes, and what an extended rusty nail he is. Not be hammered down. That was a fascinating trip that I had, all through June last year [2011] and into July. A pan-Australian adventure.

And you’re back already. Will you be doing things from all your albums, and some songs with Daniel Johns?

There is new music, I swear to you: I’ve taken pains to bring a piece from 1924, which has really changed my life. It’s by another composer, but I’m going to the gates of hell to get the rights to perform it, just this one night.

Can you say who it is?

Well, the man’s name is [Bohuslav] Martinû [and the piece ‘Le Jazz’, from 1928]. He’s a Czech composer. He’s long gone: stepped off the planet. But he was there at the dawn of the globalisation of American lingo. It’s this globalisation that interests me. And by the way, I love Adelaide. It’s just so pristine. You can see the floor of the ocean. When you breathe the air, you realise you’re not in a nuclear wind tunnel. You’re somewhere very beautiful. But it’s going to be a great night, is the point. I’m thinking about it carefully.

When I saw you in Melbourne, you played a song by the 19th-Century composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk.

I’ll put Gottschalk into play [in Adelaide], but it will be with a great orchestra. And see, this what I do for a living: I make arrangements for various combinations of instruments. It’s not like wallpaper. It’s not something you can continue in a rote fashion. I always look for new ways to present, yes, old music.

“It’s all music, and it’s meant to inform and inspire.”

What’s your discovery process like for finding new music?

I’ll tell you what it is. I’m entering my 70th year, so I don’t have time to mess around. There’s no artifice in anything that I entertain. It’s got to be, basically, an emotionally transformative experience. I hope I’m not offending you with the hopes I have for music. Listen, I come from a country where less than 40 percent of the people believe in Charles Darwin’s “theory” [of evolution]. These are very dangerous times, with [religious] fundamentalism and so forth. So I put everything I can into a bold entertainment for an evening that is informed optimism.

But how did you stumble upon a lot of these guys, who are somewhat obscure?

The thing is, it’s unavoidable. Eventually, if you just stay true to yourself … I tell my children: You don’t have to know where you’re going, but just know right from wrong. And that’s basically the way I’ve stumbled into a great deal of music.

What will Daniel Johns being doing with you exactly?

Well, I haven’t talked to Daniel about [it yet] … We’ll talk. But I get an implicit sense of trust from him, and I’m not sure what he would want to do.

Did you get to see him on his last visit?

Yes I did. But the thing is, a fellow walked into my house one day. An old friend, almost as old as me. Loudon Wainwright III. A fine American. Of his own making an individual, like Kinky Friedman. America has been celebrated as a place that allows individuals – that’s a myth that’s very much alive. But Loudon came into my house one day and said, “Music is for suckers.” He said, “I just ended up as one of the lead parts in a television series [2001’s Undeclared]. You really ought to get into that – the theatre thing, man.” So my heart sank and he left. I didn’t hear from him for the next eight months or whatever, and then all of a sudden Loudon’s back in the house, saying, “Y’know, it’s all about the music, man.” [Laughs] And he did that because they cancelled the series. This is how fickle this musical thing is.

Daniel has fled from music. If I see him on that stage with me, which of course I hope – because I just love Australians and he has to me all the irreverence and awe that Australia represents to me; it’s still a questioning nation, I see that, and I think probably as divided as America is between left and right leanings. But it’s gonna be a great night. Yes, new stuff. What I’m trying to do is confirm that it’s OK to do what I do principally, which is not to be somebody but to present an entertainment. And I tell ya, the fact that we’re framing this orchestrally is a wonderful thing to me.

You asked me what I know about [the Adelaide performance]: That’s not fair for you to ask me, because we’re not Presbyterians and we’re not Romans. We’re not gonna nail it down. But I’m highly disciplined. I want to bring my best effort to the evening. The orchestra is a real fine orchestra, with the three French horns, five woodwinds and the two mallet men for tuneful percussion. A sit-down drummer, Don Heffington, I’m bringing from Los Angeles: He played with Bob Dylan. So did I. So we have things in common. Then it’s the harp. The harp is the centrepiece of the Celtic tradition, and I keep it in all my good works.

I actually went to a concert last night that had a harp on stage.

Who was that?

“I love Adelaide. It’s just so pristine. You can see the floor of the ocean”

It was Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth. He had a harp player with him.

It’s the item. That speaks highly of him to have brought that. Because they’re hard to move around, even to the next room. But it’s interesting: The harp has pedals. Can I tell you about that? This is real important to [the show] in Adelaide. The harp has seven pedals. They allow the harpist to play notes that can be changed with the depression of a foot pedal. You have to know where the foot pedals are. What will the harpist do with seven pedals and only two feet? You have to think about it. Here’s how the harp pedals go: D C B E F G A. And the way the harpists tell us to remember this is: Did Captain Bligh Ever Fear God Almighty?

I wanted to touch base quickly on your work on the two Silverchair records, doing arrangements. Do you have any anecdotes about working on those?

The privilege was, for me, working with that trio. That fine trio. They kept their surface tension, they kept their buoyance, they kept their life force through this group that they played in. And I was honoured to throw confetti on their parade. And I did it with orchestrations. Now, the orchestrations were good. I swear to you I thought very much about that responsibility, and I’ll tell ya why: all of the lines, the explicit idea of the musical lines, the complexity was already indicated in the basic tracks. It was obvious to me I wasn’t necessary, when I stepped in. But then I wanted to make myself useful, so I think I gave the opportunity a chance to become something of durability. Durable goods. Beyond the shelf life of yoghurt. Music that is lasting and beautiful, because it is spirited and ennobling. And you can hear that in Daniel Johns’ work. I think it’s a dreadful shame if I don’t con him into that theatre that night.

Have you talked to Brian Wilson recently, whether it was about Mike Love ejecting people from The Beach Boys or you working with him again?

No, no, no, I would never pry.

But have you talked about working again?

We never talked about working again after Smile. We never talked about that. It was just done. It was almost involuntary that we got into the studio – actually, we didn’t even get into the studio. I presented the words that they needed to complete the project, when Brian did his record. But we never talked about a damn thing. We didn’t talk about [their 1995 collaborative album] Orange Crate Art. We didn’t talk about his relationship with The Beach Boys: It was always to me a very sad thing that he and they had such … oh, arguments. That’s not good. But the thing is, I think we must all step back from the good gossip that feeds the machine and remember this: These are musicians, all of them. They’re not making bombs. [Laughs] Why do we have to come away condemning any of them, for just wanting to make the world a more beautiful place?

That’s what me and my wife have decided to do: To think about that. We think about all of this. I forgive anybody’s indiscretions. I myself may have been over-served at the party. But I think we all come out as innocents: It’s all music, and it’s meant to inform and inspire. That, in a nutshell, to quote Percy Granger, is what I’m gonna do on March 8 of 2013. As a matter of fact, I’m gonna play ‘Waltzing Matilda’. It will be extemporaneous, though. I don’t know how it will sound.

That’s the idea, right? Not knowing, and surprising yourself.

I think it’s best to leave elements of surprise. But I’m telling you something: this is my best work I’m bringing to Australia. I don’t want to recognised; I only want to inspire others to do something about what we are facing now. That’s what I decided to do in my 70th year. That’s what I’m doing that night, and it’s gonna sound terrific. It’s really sexy stuff.

Van Dyke Parks will perform with Daniel Johns, Kimbra and other guests at Thebarton Theatre in Adelaide this Friday, March 8, as part of the Adelaide Festival.