Van Morrison interview about live performance/release of Astral Weeks

The Seeker of Good Songs

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Catching Up With... Van Morrison

By Jessica Pilot on February 10, 2009 8:00 AM

Van Morrison defends most of his work with a poet's pride, but can he revive his 1968 album Astral Weeks in a live setting 40 years after its release? In November, Morrison reunited with the surviving members of his studio band for the live re-release of the entire album, which drops on Feb. 24 via his new label, Listen to the Lion.

Lester Bangs wrote the seminal review of Astral Weeks in 1979, calling it the rock record with the most significance in his life. “It was proof that there was something left to express artistically besides nihilism and destruction.” Martin Scorsese had said that the first half of Taxi Driver was based on Astral Weeks. But when the album was released, it was a commercial failure. It didn’t receive praise, nor did it sell until 10 years later. Now, it is considered one of his best—regularly hailed as one of the top albums of all time. Everyone from Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and U2 owe a debt to Morrison and have credited Astral Weeks in reference to their own work.

Paste caught up with Morrison to look back on the original album and talk about its new live incarnation.

Paste: What inspired you to re-release Astral Weeks? You had said that you wanted to play the record live and fully orchestrated…
Morrison: I wanted to do this material the way I had always heard it in my head—orchestrated with a full sound. It was time. These were written prior to ’68 over a period of five years. It took a lot of hard work. I wanted these songs to have a large string section for the original, but I could not afford it at the time.

Paste: But you never perform the songs live the same as on the album, or indeed the
same way every time. The rumor is that none of the players heard what the previous band member had tracked, just the drums and guitar. Is this true?
Morrison: I play in a free-form, inspired style; I have no choice but to change it up according to the vibe. The new record was recorded live; what [you hear] is what was played in its raw form. There was no mixing, no tweaking, no post-production at all, and I like that raw and edgy sound in real time. It’s got a lot of boom to it! I really like listening to live records, it’s my new thing. Real and alive, the life is not taken out of it like a studio produced record can and very too often, does. My motto right now is post mixing kills.

Paste: Tell me about the songwriting for Astral Weeks. Every track has such spontaneous quality, blending jazz, folk, rock and soul.
Morrison: Each song is a factious story. I wrote them on the astral level from the collective... The songs require listeners to follow along and see what happens next. I can’t compromise my music. I have fought all my life with people trying to sell me a bridge to compromise my music and I can’t do it, musically.

Paste: Do you still enjoy playing live shows and is there a song you refuse to perform live?
Morrison: Live is what I love the best and another reason I made the new Astral Weeks live: it’s real and I dig that. There are many I don’t play—I have over four hundred songs and each person has a favorite. It’s a catch 22.

Paste: What was your experience like during the production process? Were Richard Davis and Jay Berliner involved?
Morrison: For the original 1968 Astral Weeks recording sessions, it was like an old time jazz session, which is hard to come by these days. There is nothing better.

Paste: Did you oversee the mixing or production? And as far as the equipment, do you prefer vintage gear?
Morrison: To the present day I have always been my own producer, so everything has always been in my hands. I have always had the say. It would have been someone else’s and I do not play that. My music has a life of its own that does not take well to other people’s ideas or lack thereof.

I prefer to keep it as simple as possible. Modern day gadgets are the things as a producer that I hate, because then it’s contrived and manufactured, tweaked, the antithesis of what I am about personally and musically.

Paste: Do you have any new albums in the works? Are there musicians you would work with? Or how about playing Astral Weeks with new artists?
Morrison: Of course I do. I am a writer, therefore I write…

I would not do Astral Weeks with other musicians because I am only doing this for a limited time. I may switch around musicians, as my music requires keeping the sound where it needs to be.
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