James Rhodes is a classical pianist. Warner Brothers Records is a rock label. Can any good come from their unholy union? Proper Discord caught up with James to ask all sorts of impertinent questions. He was very patient.
You’ve just signed a deal with Warner Brothers Records. That’s the same label that has Metallica, R.E.M. Linkin Park and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, isn’t it? Are you sure that’s a good idea?
Well Beethoven in many ways is similar to Metallica. At least hair-wise. I think it’s about time we were on the same label! I hate that whole segregation of classical vs rock music and am so tired of going into HMV or the last of the physical CD retailers and trekking down to the dungeon or up to the attic of those shops when all the enthusiasm and life is on the main floor. Some of the record company people and contemporary bands are intelligent enough to know that their music all comes from classical – guys from Muse and Pendulum have classical backgrounds and know the classical repertoire – even Metallica’s Enter Sandman from the Black Album has got that same heavy vibe of Die Kunst der Fugue. My album covers reflected from day one that I did not want to be in the back shelf category. I want to be up there with everybody else – why not ? Classical (not cross over) is the last of the great arts not be re-thought. Even Opera has had a good going over – it’s about the presentation and communication to the audience.
This deal is something that I am truly excited about for all sorts of reasons. To be the first core-classical artist on a major label gives me an incredible opportunity to use all of their (immense) resources to bring this music to the widest possible audience. I’m talking about people who would not in a million years consider buying a classical album of any sort. I’ve always wanted to make classical music something that everyone from kids to pensioners have access to – teenagers especially, and I think that with the backing of a label like WB a lot of the stigma of classical music will be removed for those who may have been to image conscious to buy it. And my big hope is that it will do this without polarising existing classical fans. Most importantly the music itself will not be in any way dumbed down – think late Beethoven sonatas in their entirety, Chopin etudes and Ravel’s toccata being marketed and put out there for everyone regardless of age, background and socio-economic status to enjoy. Wasn’t it Bertrand Russell who said every great idea starts out as a blasphemy?
What do you expect Warner Brothers Records to do for you that a traditional classical label like DG or Sony Masterworks couldn’t?
I wanted this deal for the same reason that I was thrilled to get my manager, who has had no experience in classical music before. He was a self confessed “closet” classical fan and also did not understand why there were so many bizarre rules around the whole genre, so I was very happy to have a fresh pair of eyes and a new vision. What it means is that there is an opportunity to present classical music in a way that I want it done. The shows I want to do will continue to be bespoke and break into new territories. I want to introduce a new format and presentation style that will build on what I have been doing. Warners have a hugely diversified media team that want to help me do this and that can only mean more exposure, specially on TV. They are very excited about this and that enthusiasm is going to help take the presentation and availability of classical music into the 21st century without compromising the music itself. It’s very much a team effort – liaising with both the rock A&R, marketing and merchandising guys as well as the classical team (wonderful people like Bill Holland who had relationships with Horowitz and other mythical pianists), and my management to ensure that this music can be thrust out there in a way that possibly hasn’t been done before.
Who is your A&R contact? Are you their first classical artist? Are you going to have to school them in the ways of the classical music world?
My manager and I are the A & R team – we choose the repertoire and the way the album should look. For sure we consult and discuss with WB but they trust what we have been doing, and saw what we were achieving out there when it comes to performance and new audiences. That’s why they bought into me. Regarding my main contact at WB, we deal direct with the president and he loves it (he’s even taking piano lessons). Sure some of the Warners team are new to classical music, but then again so is a huge chunk of the audience I want to reach so this is a big advantage. They can help show me what works and what doesn’t. Would I want to record or play Webern’s Variations to a new audience? Probably not. Beethoven’s Waldstein sonata – hell yes – I played it to 15 of the WB team at a showcase just after I signed and they all fell out of their chairs! And again, this is a collaboration not just with the rock side of the label but also with their classical team. Sure, a lot of the repertoire choice is common sense but it always helps to have fresh ears – a big part of the repertoire for my first two CDs on Signum was decided by sitting and playing to my manager (a classical newbie) and seeing what we both felt was right, and the audience seems to have agreed!
You’re planning to release your first album by the end of the year. What are you going to record?
Mainly piano music. It hasn’t been finalised yet but I’m planning on including some lesser known composers (Alkan, Balakirev) alongside others.
Your first two albums didn’t look much like classical albums. What’s an album cover for?
My feeling was that if I see another 18th Century watercolour on the front of a classical CD I’d want to rip my own arm off. The latest CD has me in a clown suit on the cover – this is not me being a dick. I feel strongly that wearing white tie and tails is its own clown suit and that classical musicians can sometimes take themselves a little too seriously. So my point is that we can all lighten up a little, bask in this great music and not wonder if we’re wearing the right clothes, being suitably austere and dour. And I think the covers look awesome – we were lucky enough to work with Dennis Morris who was Bob Marley and the Sex Pistols official photographer. Why not use a guy with that much talent and experience in a field that has had huge success, exposure and profit, and involve him in classical? I like album covers that tell a story about who is playing what’s on the disc. I don’t have a problem with clever esoteric covers with stunning photographs of steel pillars or water droplets – like ECM do, it’s just not me.
You talk to the audience a lot during your performances. What is it important for them to know?
Talking in concerts is vital for me. It gives me an opportunity to dispense with programme notes, let the audience know why I’ve chosen the pieces I’ve chosen, tell them a little about what was going on in the lives of the composers when they wrote it, talk a bit about the difficulties involved for me and so on. It makes the concert a far more immersive experience and helps provide much more of a relationship between performer and audience. Both have an equal part in a live concert, with the music itself making up the final third I think. Many times as a kid going to concerts I was disappointed at this distant figure walking onto the stage in his fancy outfit, barely acknowledging the audience, playing then bowing and leaving. I wanted to hear them speak, even hang out in the bar with them afterwards (especially if it was Anne-Sophie Mutter or Helene Grimaud) and know more about THEM. It is slightly schizophrenic to go from talking about Blumenfeld having syphilis to playing his left-hand etude and I suppose it makes my job a little harder, but it’s so worthwhile.
Does classical music needs saving? If so, what from? What can we do?
Classical music doesn’t need saving at all. It’s the industry and the presentation that needs to change because for the most part it’s stayed the same since the 1930s. I love venues and audiences like the Wigmore Hall, Festival Hall etc, but I can’t imagine some 16 year old from Walthamstow going there with his buddies. Classical music is big enough to keep the Wigmore crowd and at the same time expand the parameters. Which is why I’m playing venues like The Roundhouse, the 100 Club, the Latitude Festival and so on. I should also say that I played at the Queen Elisabeth Hall and the Roundhouse within a few weeks of each other last year – Chopin, late Beethoven, a Bach French Suite, and the audience at the Roundhouse was quieter and seemed more focussed despite bringing in drinks and having tabled seating. 70% of them had never been to a classical music concert before and the majority was under 30.
I saw Alex Ross speak at the Wigmore a few weeks ago about the “rules” – when to applaud, burp, fart, cough (try telling that to the poor consumptive Chopin) and one of his most interesting points to me was when he talked about how the most important thing is what is happening on stage. It’s not about the rules – the dress code, the behaviour, the clapping or not clapping. It’s about the music and how it is communicated.
I mean what’s more ridiculous than starting a concert at 8pm and finishing at 10pm? The audience goes home after work, comes straight out again, hungry and (in London) cold. They sit through 2 hours of music having to concentrate intensely, when most of them are thinking about being home in bed or sitting in front of a big juicy steak! And they pay £30+ a ticket for the privilege. Why not start at 6? Play for 75 minutes without an interval, break up the music with some chat, go have a drink with the performer afterwards and then finish in time to go out for dinner and be home in time to tell the kids a story. Or perhaps a late night gig – most main acts in rock/pop/jazz don’t go on till 10pm or midnight even. This gives you a chance to have dinner with a hot date and hopefully be on a promise by the end of the gig…
I am well aware that there is a growing movement already that is changing the face of classical music – young musicians who are trying out different venues, formats, collaborations (Gabriel Prokofiev is doing great things). But this effort needs to be redoubled and we must push on to break through the self-imposed barriers to entry that exist in classical music. This music literally saved my life as a child, and whilst I’m not egocentric enough to say that I can help alleviate the misery and ennui that is such a big part of society today, I do think it’s my duty to give something back and try and expose this music to a new audience. Hopefully in a way that isn’t preachy or evangelical but that is inclusive, immersive and inspiring.
Some of your less flattering reviewers have suggested that you wouldn’t need all this marketing if you were a better pianist. What, if anything, would you do differently if you woke up tomorrow able play like Horowitz?
Dude – I am lucky to be alive let alone play the piano! Bad reviews come with the territory – and all performers (including the greats) have received a thumping at one time or another.
My most recent review in the Observer (4th April) mentioned that my playing was at times “edgy, raw and uneven – a true reflection of Rhodes’s troubled life – but also fresh, vital and undeniably exciting.” I think that sums me up. If any critics suggest that my CD covers and marketing have been a ploy to cover up my lack of talent, well to me that stinks of jealousy and lazy journalism – one critic even started out an article about why I was a terrible thing for classical music by saying he hadn’t heard me play and knew nothing about me! I remember reading that the late, great Harold Schonberg wrote in the NY Times that Glenn Gould only played the first movement of Brahms 1 at such a slow tempo because he lacked the technique to play it at the “right” tempo! Extraordinary.
If you want a machine, playing like a metronome without a single fluffed note, and comunicating nothing other than what’s on the page, then I am not your man.
Regarding the whole marketing idea, I work directly with my manager in presenting myself. What is ironic is that a lot of people assumed we had a massive PR company and marketing team to dream up the “Apocalypse of Classical.” Believe me, we have done this with the smallest of budgets and a shed load of coffee. I have a vision about classical music performance, and that is not going to suit everybody. The Classical genre is notoriously bereft of imagination and that is why it is such a non player in the market. There are those who want to keep that way. Not me – I owe it everything. So if I want to be wearing a tangerine tutu and smoking a cigar on my next album cover because I think it is relevant to what I feel then I will do it. I should also make it clear that I’m working my ass off to improve my technique all the time – I hope all musicians are!
And if I were to wake up tomorrow playing like Horowitz or Kissin? I’d be thrilled that I could nail Petroushka, but I think some of my audience might be disappointed – they like the way I play. Without question I would carry on saying what I say with my audience and take the same type of photographs. I do exactly what I do because that is who I am. If it gets John Doe to go out and buy my CD or wander further down into the dungeons where they sell classical CDs and buy Zimerman or Gould then I know I am doing my job. And I’m fiercely proud of that.