A Rock Star Spills On a ‘Statesman’

David Minehan, producer and owner of Woolly Mammoth Sound Studio, has been in the Boston music scene since the 1980s. A former frontman-guitarist of The Neighborhoods and Stardarts, he spent about 19 years performing before moving primarily toward a career in producing music.

A good friend of Rick’s for many years, as well as a producer on three of his albums — I Hate Everything But You, Forced to Swallow and Old Stag — he talks about how they met and why we should all listen when Berlin has something to say.

How did you first get to know Rick?

I’m old enough to say that I saw Rick’s Orchestra Luna back in the late 70s at the Rat in Boston. He was already a rock star to me. I didn’t know him for many years after, but somewhere in the 80s we struck up a friendship. In the 90s, as luck would have it, mutual friends brought us together in the studio.

The first album that you did together was The Shelley Winters Project?

Yes. That sounds right. This is where my Alzheimer’s kicks in (laughs). That was about 300 albums ago.  Those [Shelley Winters’ albums] were done at the old Woolly Mammoth [in Fenway].

Why did you want to work with Rick?

The thing about Rick is that he comes from much deeper musical reference points than anyone realizes and I think his age certainly has a lot to do with that, but he also is very curious about music. But I could tell from the recording I’d hear, and also what I’d seen, that this was a guy who seemed to take all the best of the past, create some alchemy, and put it forward into the future. You always hear a good dose of bygone eras in Rick’s music and yet somehow it’s turned into a fresh penny. Newly minted.

What was your dynamic with Rick, as producer and musician, in the studio?

(laughs heartily) Absurdity. To me, humor makes the world go round and the more rye, black and indulgent it is, the better. Rick can certainly accommodate me on that level and I hope I can keep up with him. We would go into role-playing a lot, especially with Shelley Winters – one of us would assume the character of Shelley Winters and one of us would assume the Burt Lancaster character she was having an affair with while he was married, and we would just riff on that for way more time than you would think. That’s just one level of it.

What Rick provides for me is the ability to stab the knife right into the heart of the matter, emotionally. He never fails to create a petri dish of some emotional room, then decorates it with adornments and furniture of a well-staged play. His lyrics can be so corny on some level, but the way he executes them, suddenly it’s not corny. People are suddenly disarmed by his music: “I was just washing dishes and suddenly I start to cry.” His music seems to have that ability to just completely pull you by the emotional balls into his camp. That’s the thing I love about him. There were times when he could bring me to the verge of crying, in just how the lyrics, the music, the execution, the foreshadowing and the backlighting would all come together. And it was stunning how he could do that. He can’t be pigeoned-holed and I think it works for and against him. He can’t be put in a genre easily.

I’ve read that Orchestra Luna IS the genre they belong to.

Right, right. You know, it must have been hard on some level for Rick, because there was such a cultural and musical upheaval going on at the time when Orchestra Luna was starting to hit their stride, then from England to New York, this punk rock thing was starting to explode. For me, who grew up on a lot of 60s and 70s traditional stuff, that I still love and loved then, there was still something about this new zeitgeist of music that was really catching me. It was scary, but kind of exciting, challenging my status-quo of musical diet at that point.

What I saw in Orchestra Luna was on the best angle, this great hybrid of prog-rock and theater and daring-do of songwriting suddenly challenged by the “Oh man, that’s bloated dinosaur music.” Rick was on the precipice of launching a very promising new band that had a lot going for it and yet right at that very time, there was this incredible revolution of music that was stealing all the headlines. Almost making people say to a band like Rick’s, “Fuck you, punk rock!” I’m sure for him it was like, “Ugh, timing is everything.” [Punk rock] blew up and who knows if it didn’t where things would’ve gone. I felt bad on the one hand,  suddenly the rug got pulled out from under bands like Rick’s.

What do you think drives someone like Rick to keep going despite disappointments, to keep reinventing, and to stay relevant to music today?

This is where certain artists separate into lifers and others who are still artists but can’t seem to act on their artist souls anymore. This is where we all live vicariously through Rick. Publish or die. I think it’s really a part of his well-being to stay vitally connected to artistic output or else. He’d be like a fish who can’t breathe in the air. I think it’s a part of his social well-being. He needs to be out there, he needs to constantly air his feelings through these songs.

There are lots of us artists who had our hey day and now it’s time to make a living and see what part of the art we integrate. I’m lucky I still get to work in music every day, but my own songwriting has bombed into almost nothingness. Whereas here’s Rick who has decided, “I can live on this much. That’s all I need to live, the rest I need to still put into my music and my art.” And that’s a choice. It’s like a vow of celibacy of a priest. People don’t know how serious a commitment that is.

How long have you been producing?

I would say I started producing bands in the early 80s and then stated to have my own studio to produce bands in the mid 90s. From small to not so small. It’s been a long time of working with a lot of artists. I have a lot of favorites and Rick has to be one of them. I know whenever we’re working a Rick record, the music being worked on is coming from all the right places. It’s not a means to be rich and famous or tap into an up and coming trend, or to align himself with a certain genre of music that might buy him favor with gigs and work with certain bands. He’s really just doing it from the most essential, “This is what I want to do with my soul.”

Is there anything else you want to add about Rick that I haven’t asked you about?

I would say this about Rick. You get the electric Rick who lights up the room and brings this great enegy and typhoon with him, but you also have to remember there’s a Rick who is very focused and very sedate. This is a man who will stop everything, at least twice a day, to go meditate. If you’re really in a rough place, or there’s something heavy going on, either with you and Rick or in your own personal plains, there will be a very direct heart-to-heart. There’s a relationship there that quickly opens where you see an even more direct path into Rick that is even more bountiful. He is sage-like in his wisdom. I think age brings that. He’ll hate to hear that age thing, but he’s a wise man. He’s seen a lot. Whenever he speaks, I listen. If Rick is a statesman in our backyard, it’s really important to led your ear and take credence. He’s a wealth and a gem.

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About Melissa Tabeek

Melissa Tabeek is a freelance journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon. She reports on politics, culture and social issues in the Middle East. On her website, you can also find her blog, where she writes about her work and daily life in Lebanon. She holds a Master of Arts degree in Journalism from Northeastern University.
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One Response to A Rock Star Spills On a ‘Statesman’

  1. Pingback: The Rick Berlin Project by Melissa Tabeek | LaParadiddle

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