Michael Brook Host Liane Hansen speaks with producer/composer/guitarist Michael Brook about his new cd, "RockPaperScissors" (on Big Helium/Canadian Rational Records). Brook has been busy over the years producing and collaborating with others, and also scored the recent Al Gore documentary "An Inconvenient Truth." "RockPaperScissors" is his third solo release, with an exotic sound that Brook describes as a kind of travelogue. (13:30)
NPR logo Michael Brook

Michael Brook

Host Liane Hansen speaks with producer/composer/guitarist Michael Brook about his new cd, "RockPaperScissors" (on Big Helium/Canadian Rational Records). Brook has been busy over the years producing and collaborating with others, and also scored the recent Al Gore documentary "An Inconvenient Truth." "RockPaperScissors" is his third solo release, with an exotic sound that Brook describes as a kind of travelogue. (13:30)


Michael Brook is one of those forces in the music industry whose name may not be front and center, but whose presence is unmistakable. As a producer, Brook's touch in the studio has graced the recordings of such artist as singer Jane Siberry, Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour, and Irish rockers The Pogues.

Born and raised in Toronto, Brook is an acclaimed guitarist, even an inventor, but more about that later. Occasionally, Michael Brook gets to produce his own work. His third solo release RockPaperScissors is now available on Big Helium Canadian Rational Records.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: And Michael Brook joins us in studio.

Welcome, it's a real pleasure to meet you.

Mr. BROOK: Well, it's a great honor to be here.

HANSEN: The word producer is something that, you know, very easy to throw around in conversation. But I'm really not if sure people have a clear idea of what it is a producer does, what the role is. What does it mean to you?

Mr. BROOK: Well, I think people don't have a clear idea because there's a huge range of what producers do. Sometimes their job really is to get out of the way. And you have great artists who know what they want to do and you're kind of an overseer to make sure nothing goes wrong. Some of the best producers I've heard of basically sit on the sofa at the back of the room, don't say much and every once in a while, they say great. And that's it. And they're very successful. And then others create every note on the record.

HANSEN: Mm hmm.

Mr. BROOK: And it covers - so it covers everywhere between a composer and a sort of friend in the studio.

HANSEN: Are you controlling every moment or do you sit back on the couch?

Mr. BROOK: I'm not good at sitting back on the couch, but I wish I were because I really admire the results of some people who do that. But no, I'm more in the trenches and I don't necessarily create every note, because often I work with really great writers. But I think I channel it. I'm fairly detailed in the way I work.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: What was the producer's vision for you for your CD, RockPaperScissors?

Mr. BROOK: Well, the role of the producer is even vaguer when you're also the composer. I think I had this very tenuous sense of a kind of travelogue of places or senses of an exotic place.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You were an engineer and had worked with other producers, Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno. I mean, what did you learn from them about production?

Mr. BROOK: I think the thing I learned from Brian was to treat the studio partly as an instrument rather than a place. And also, that you have to experiment, and also, you have to accept that failure is an integral part of the process. And because you're taking chances and doing things you haven't done before, so of course you're going to mess up quite a bit of the time.

But still, when you get it right, there's a freshness and a vitality that has is really inspiring.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Tell us about some of the people you worked with on the CD. It's quite a roster.

Mr. BROOK: Yeah, it's pretty amazing. Well, a great singer/songwriter based in Los Angeles, Lisa Germano. And then posthumous collaboration with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, which was a recording of a vocal I'd done, amazingly enough, 16 years ago that we didn't use on one of the records we did together. And then, Paul Buchanan, fantastic singer from The Blue Nile. Djivan Gasparyan, an Armenian duduk player; and Claude Shalhoub, a Lebanese violinist, amongst many others.

HANSEN: Tell us about using the Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan posthumously. I mean, were you in the process of composing something and thought, ah, his voice would sound good here and I just happen to have...?

Mr. BROOK: Well, it was - the idea was that perhaps some of his vocals would fit. And then Richard Evans actually combed through a whole bunch of recordings to try and find something that did.

HANSEN: And Richard Evans is?

Mr. BROOK: He's the co-producer on this record and did a beautiful job.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: It is almost eerie. It's kind of like this ghost appearing at a séance.

Mr. BROOK: Yeah, I mean, it's a little unsettling, I have to say. But musically I thought it ended up quite nice.

HANSEN: Yeah. You also used the late Sir Richard Burton...

Mr. BROOK: Mm hmm.

HANSEN: ...reading Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood.

(Soundbite of music)

Sir RICHARD BURTON (Actor): (Reading) It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible black...

Mr. BROOK: I always thought it would be great to have spoken word on it. I don't know why. But it's just something theatrical about it and maybe cinematic.

(Soundbite of music)

Sir BURTON: (Reading) Slow black, probe black...

Mr. BROOK: I actually had initially planned to have people reading a bit of dialogue from a Raymond Carver story. And then Richard Evans had - he just got iTunes and he'd just got Under Milk Wood, and it was the only spoken word we had that we quickly could just slap it down and see how it sounded. It was instantly magic. Still gives me goose bumps every time I hear it.

(Soundbite of music)

Sir BURTON: (Reading) And all the people of the lulled and dumbfound town are sleeping now.

HANSEN: Sounds like a very organic process...

Mr. BROOK: Totally...

HANSEN: ...when you make music.

Mr. BROOK: I only think one step at a time. So I do something and that implies what the next step should be. I do that and then if that works or doesn't work, I carry on or I back up. It's like those little robots that try and negotiate - the things that vacuum your house and they just keep bumping into a wall and then they turn this way...

(Soundbite of laughter)


Mr. BROOK: I don't preconceive it.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Tell us about the cut Light Star. I mean, you describe it - it's beautiful. It has the Bulgarian choir and orchestra on the cut, but you describe it as having a troubled history.

Mr. BROOK: Yeah.

HANSEN: What do you mean?

Mr. BROOK: Well, it was one of those ones where I kept banging into the wall.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BROOK: It started out as a sort of - almost a kind of rock number, not heavy rock, but electric guitar oriented, like it is at the beginning. And then actually went into a faux Kojak theme, with brass and drums playing, because my original idea was that the drummer would sort of increase the feel of the tempo each time around the cycle, and so it would just keep building and building and building. And it just didn't work. And I - it sort of felt generic.

So I actually kind of gave up on it. And then when we went to Bulgaria to record, asked the Bulgarian choir to find a traditional piece that they could sing over top of it.

(Soundbite of music)

BULGARIAN CHOIR: (singing in foreign language)

Mr. BROOK: So they did and all of a sudden it - actually, I'm reading this Alain Debottan(ph) book about architecture and he talks about how it's always the - and the same with cooking. You know, it's the contrast developments and the combinations that work. And so taking something that at times veered on the generic but adding the exotic Bulgarian choir to me sort of brought out elements of the first section that worked.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: At times, it sounds like the choir is coming out of, you know, a shortwave radio being played on some dad's old 78 RPM.

Mr. BROOK: Well, that's what - I'm glad you felt that because that was the exact intention. I wanted it to feel like you're in - in a sort of almost cinematic sense - that you're in the piece, you know, you're sort of - you're in the concert hall, and then, you know, like in Triplets of Belleville - did you see that film?


Mr. BROOK: Where you're seeing something and then sound starts to go all tinny and it pulls out and turns out that's people watching TV.


Mr. BROOK: I slightly wanted that feel where it sort of zooms out sonically.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: To you now as an inventor, you made something called an infinite guitar. U2, Edge plays...

Mr. BROOK: Yes.

HANSEN: ...the thing, for example, in With or Without You back in the '80s. We actually have a little snippet we'd like to play.

Mr. BROOK: Sure.

(Soundbite of song With or Without You)

HANSEN: So what is it? What is infinite guitar?

Mr. BROOK: Well, it means that it will play itself. It's a - I don't know how to say it without getting too technical, but it's a way of - it simulates standing beside a very loud amplifier, so you get feedback.

HANSEN: Mm hmm.

Mr. BROOK In a feedback situation, the speaker vibrates the air, which vibrates the air, which vibrates the string, which vibrates the speaker, and so you have a loop. And I've done it electromagnetically so that essentially it's kind of a motor, but it uses the strings as part of the motor. But I got interested in it because I was quite interested in Indian music, which uses a lot of inflection and ornamentation.

There's a lot of emphasis on how you go from one note to another, rather than what the next note is. And that requires that you have a sustaining instrument, generally. So I thought, well, maybe I can make something that would allow me to play in a way that incorporates more of those elements into my music.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You've done a lot of work as a composer for film. You did the soundtrack, for example, for the new Al Gore documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. When you're working on something that is visual in nature, do you think in visual terms when you're designing the music? Do you have images in your mind when you're creating kind of those atmospheric sounds?

Mr. BROOK: When I'm working on a film, I don't. I suppose partly because you already have an image, so I don't conceive of it in that term. It's more - usually there's either an emotion that it would be nice to bring out and emphasize that isn't quite as strong as you'd like it to be.

For example, in Inconvenient Truth, there's a lot of information and it's kind of a lecture, in a way, and very well organized and very well presented, but it's a lot to absorb. And the director, Davis Guggenheim, wanted to have - sort of give people a little break every once in a while and say, okay, you don't have to absorb this information, you can just sort of - and it was more the personal side of Al Gore's life or how it connected to the theme of the film. And that's when there's music.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You rarely appear in concert. I think...

Mr. BROOK: Yes.

HANSEN: ...you like to stay in the studio.

Mr. BROOK: I actually like performing.

HANSEN: Do you?

Mr. BROOK: Yeah. It's more that I've been working on films and producing and then doing collaborations with people. But I'm actually going to tour quite a bit for this record - well, as much as I can, because I'm really excited about it.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Michael Brook, his new CD is called RockPaperScissors. Thanks a lot for coming in.

Mr. BROOK: You're very welcome.

HANSEN: You can hear more music from the CD on our Web site, NPR.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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