Interview: Ted Ottaviano from Book of Love

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Tuesday, June 28, 2016
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Interview: Ted Ottaviano from Book of Love

Interview: Ted Ottaviano from Book of Love
By Will Harris

2016 marks the 30th anniversary of Book of Love’s self-titled debut album, which makes it a perfect time to step back and reflect on the cumulative work done by the group over the course of their career. In truth, they’ve only released a total of four studio albums, but in their defense, they broke up in 1994 and spent the better part of the next two decades apart, which is a pretty excuse for not releasing new albums. But the bond between Ted Ottaviano, Susan Ottaviano, Jade Lee, and Lauren Roselli Johnson has remained strong over the years, and although it’s a cliché to suggest that it’s now stronger than ever, there’s reason to suspect that it might actually be true.

In celebration of their debut album’s 30th anniversary, not only have Book of Love released a new compilation of their greatest hits – MMXVI: The 30th Anniversary Collection – but they’ve also gone back into the studio and written and recorded their first two new songs in more than 15 years: “All Girl Band” and “Something Good.” Needless to say, we’re pretty excited about this development, so we hopped on the phone with Ted Ottaviano and had a nice, long chat about Book of Love’s origins, the group’s various albums, and where things stand with the foursome these days.

Rhino: First of all, congratulations on being back. Not that you were entirely gone for that long, but it’s still good to have Book of Love back…and, of course, to have new material, too!

Ted Ottaviano: Thanks! Yeah, we’ve been ebbing and flowing over the last few years, but this is the first comprehensive thing – or almost comprehensive thing, anyway – that we’ve done where we’ve had a game plan to go with it.

Well, even though I’m enough of a complete geek to already know a fair amount of this information, I’ll start by asking the secret-origin question: how did Book of Love first come together?

Okay, so Susan [Ottaviano] and I, we’ve been friends since childhood, and we started doing music together early on, and then we both went off to art school. She went to the Philadelphia College of Art, and she met Jade [Lee] there, and I went to the School of Visual Arts, and I met Lauren [Roselli Johnson] there. We were kind of doing music in a weird way – long distance – but when they graduated art college, they moved to New York, and that’s when Book of Love finally became a tangible group. We started writing songs first and then doing a couple of live shows. We actually got signed very quickly, so we didn’t really have our live chops down by the time we had a record deal, which was kind of interesting, to say the least. [Laughs.]

Was that intimidating when you realized, “Crap, now we’ve got to tour behind the stuff we’re writing”?

Yeah! Well, the thing is that what we did spend a lot of time on was songcraft and songwriting. We really consistently rehearsed, but we would just create songs and practice, and then we ultimately made a demo. The demo of “Boy,” which basically was our first single, kind of got into the hands of a downtown DJ/producer, Ivan Ivan, who brought it up to Sire Records and played it to Seymour [Stein]. And the legend… [Starts to laugh.] We like to think this legendary story really happened, but supposedly Seymour, right when it got to the first chorus of “Boy,” was, like, “I want to sign that record!”

So we basically went from playing maybe one or two live shows to recording this first 12” single, and then because of the fact that it kind of caught on so quickly and people kind of loved this first song, we were on tour with Depeche Mode before we knew it. So we kind of learned how to play live in front of large crowds…and let the high jinks begin! [Laughs.] There were actually some great highs and some pretty unbelievable lows in the learning process.

So how much did you know about Ivan Ivan when you started working with him?

Well, you know, we were club-goers, and it was that period of New York where there were still some of the big clubs, but there were the smaller downtown clubs, starting with Mud Club. But subsequent to that, places like the Pyramid popped up…and that was our watering hole. And he was a DJ there. It was basically one of those clubs that was a real breeding ground for local artists and performance artists, digital artists, all different types of people. And the music was great. He had just had success with "The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight,” and…it was Lauren, actually, who was talking to him and gave him a cassette of our demo. [Laughs.] And he liked it! But that was our neighborhood. That was our group at that point. Our clan.

I knew about Book of Love opening for Depeche Mode, but the story of how it came about seems incredibly streamlined, or at least the version that I’ve heard does. Did you really just meet them at a party, and then they invited you to tour with them after that?

No! [Laughs.]

Glad I asked, then.

It was really based on the fact that our record had just come out, and…well, first of all, we did two tours with them. The first one was the Some Great Reward tour, and it was the American leg of that. And because of the fact that our record was making noise and the other fact that we were both Sire artists, we were teamed up. I think it was Seymour who introduced us to them, and then Daniel Miller, who was basically their producer and ran Mute Records, which was their main label out of England. They just liked the record a lot, and they gave us a shot. And in a weird way, we kind of worked well for their crowd, and as a result, we were asked back the next year for the Black Celebration tour, which was almost double the size of venues and amount of dates. I mean, that was a huge tour.

As you said, you did the “Boy” single for Sire, but I get the impression that it was a gradual decision for you to do an album for them: they saw how the single did, and then it evolved from there.

Yeah, we always say that “Boy” got signed, not Book of Love. [Laughs.] But it performed, so we got a second single, and that was “I Touch Roses,” which was – in a weird way – maybe a little less poppy than “Boy” but had its own vibe to it. We loved “I Touch Roses,” so we felt like that was the next obvious follow-up, just a foregone conclusion. But the initial reaction when it came out was almost… Well, it was slightly underwhelming. So we didn’t really know what was going to happen. But what was weird was that the song took longer to heat up, but it ultimately outreached “Boy” on the charts! And at that point we were finally asked to do a full long-player for them, so we went back in the studio and recorded throughout the entire fall and into early winter, and then that album came out in the spring of ’86.

So when you went in to do the whole album, did you feel the pressure to follow up the singles, or did you just embrace the challenge and go, “We’re going to do this, and we’re going to kick ass”?

Um…both? [Laughs.]

That’s fair.

And it’s ever changed! I don’t feel like I’ve gotten any better at any of these things: I still feel a tremendous amount of pressure, but I’ve also still got this drive. We get more of an understanding of how the business works, but in terms of the engine that I – and I think all of us – still use is kind of a combination of those two things. There’s something about when you’re starting out in your career: you don’t really fully know if you’re going to fall off the side of a cliff how far down you’re going. In a weird way, we were incredibly courageous in a lot of decisions…mainly because we might’ve been slightly naïve to how the whole thing worked at that point. [Laughs.] But we learned quickly!

When you did the sophomore effort, Lullaby, was it a case where you were freaking out because you had to do another album that quickly or…

Yeah.

Well, there you go.

Yeah, it was, like, because the first album was written over a few year period, and the second album was written over, like, a consolidated set of months. The way I worked – and I still work this way – I can noodle things and just keep noodling them and then kind of finally get them where they need to be. But there wasn’t that kind of time, so we just kind of pushed forward and created the record. We mixed it in Germany – Flood was the co-producer on that record, and he was amazing – and we mixed it at Hansa Tonstudio in Berlin, which was amazing, because I’m a huge Bowie fanatic. But when we got home… I remember initially when I got back, it was almost like, “Uh-oh, what did we just do?” [Laughs.] We almost didn’t even understand the record yet, because everything was just kind of made, built from top to bottom in a short period of time. I’ve always had a certain vibe about that album, but what’s weird is that over the years… It has kind of elevated in a lot of people’s perceptions, and some people even sort of gravitate towards that record more than our first album, which is interesting to me. I never thought that was going to be the case!

With “Pretty Boys and Pretty Girls,” the lyrics… Well, actually, I’ll approach it with trepidation because I’ve never actually read anything where you personally were discussing it, but the lyrics were ostensibly tackling the AIDS crisis.

Yeah, it was written about the climate, someone living in a major city in the midst of the AIDS crisis – almost an awakening, on a lot of levels – and a show of support to the AIDS community. Now we’re being told that that was one of the first records, if not the first, that discussed that kind of thing. But we always just talked about the things that were really relevant to us, but that just made sense. We were – and some of us still are – lower East Side / East Village New York people, from an artist community, and it’s a bit of a bubble. It’s got its own sort of strata of things that make that community what it is. So we were just speaking from our lives. It just made sense. I know it was slightly challenging for certain people at that time, but…I don’t know. The song just seemed like a very positive message to me, even though it came from a dark place.

Whose idea was it to tackle “Tubular Bells”?

Well, we came back from a very successful tour, the album was a success at that point, and we were able to sort of upgrade. So I bought myself a fancy new music sequencer, and I was having a great old time on it! [Laughs.] And I had just seen The Exorcist recently, and I was down at the rehearsal studio, and for some reason everybody happened to be late that day, so I just started using my new sequencer, just programming “Tubular Bells,” and it kind of worked. And lo and behold, when Lauren came down, she just added in the “mother, make it stop,” and it was, like, “I think we’ve got ourselves a record here!” And then on the album we kind of turned it into a medley with “Pretty Boys.” At that point, we were really loving what Stock-Aiken-Waterman were doing with their dance tracks and loving some of the new artist stuff. We liked this fusion of alternative music and high energy, and we wanted to take a stab at that. So we turned it into that goliath of “Tubular Bells” and “Pretty Boys.”

I have to tell you, that’s actually the first thing I ever heard by Book of Love, on Sire’s Just Say Yo! compilation.

Oh, yeah, I remember that one. That had the bunny rabbit on the front!

Absolutely.

Yeah, you know, “Boy” is probably our best known song, but over the years “Pretty Boys” has proven to be a real cornerstone track for us. It’s nice to know that they all have their little lives. Their nine lives. [Laughs.]

Did you ever hear from Mike Oldfield about your “Tubular Bells” cover?

No! I haven’t! But that’s interesting, because… I mean, that’s a masterpiece, his [Tubular Bells] album. And the thing is, we were kind of covering it, but we were also kind of covering The Exorcist. That music wasn’t originally written for The Exorcist, and it felt like we took some camp license on it. So I’d be interested to know what he thinks of it, but I almost feel like we were just kind of going, “Let’s just do our own thing and keep it moving.” [Laughs.]

With Candy Carol, the idea seemed to be to take the Book of Love sound and apply it to ‘60s-inspired songs.

Yeah, it’s one of the most misunderstood albums, like, ever. [Laughs.] Because it’s a very melodic record, but it’s also a very dark record. The four of us have been working together, and we’re doing a couple of Candy Carol songs for our live show, and it’s interesting: where we were creating simpler song structures with a lot of complex production, on Candy Carol we decided to flip it and create these more complex song structures with a real simple menu of sounds. We went in there with our samplers and limited ourselves to certain sounds for that record. There are a lot of strings and bells, which are always on Book of Love records, but they’re really on that record. And the songs are deceptively complicated. They sound simple, but when you really break them apart, there’s a lot of layers of writing, just in terms of the way they’re constructed and arranged and stuff, and as a result… I mean, I’ve always loved that record, I think it’s got some of our best moments, but it was met with a very mixed bag of impressions, I felt, from our fans and from the audience. But it’s always the same thing: sometimes it can be overlooked, but there’s always someone who says, “My absolute favorite record you did was Candy Carol!” [Laughs.] It’s kind of an all-or-nothing album.

I can see that. I have a longstanding history of falling in love with whatever album by an artist is supposed to be the least popular. Needless to say, I have a soft spot for Candy Carol.

Oh, that’s good to know! Trust me, we feel the same way about that record. It’s like the little train that could. But it was very ‘60s-inspired, just in terms of its songwriting, so you were right about what you said first off. The other thing that was also a little bit weird in hindsight… The record came out in ’91, and I think there was a sea change that was just starting with what people wanted to hear, what sounds they wanted to hear, and it was basically right on the heels of a lot of the iconic bands of the ‘80s and right at the beginning of the guitar-driven grunge stuff that was happening. I always felt that it was a little out of its own time. I always felt that people heard it as an ‘80s record, but we felt it was, in a weird way, almost like a ‘90s Saint Etienne record. It had that kind of sensibility to it. But you know what? You can’t sit down with every person who buys the record and explain it to them as they listen to it. [Laughs.] It just isn’t going to happen!

And then we come to Love Bubble. How do you guys look back on that one?

It was almost like our White Album. I mean, I’m not worthy to say that, but if you know the Beatles’ history, then it makes sense. It was really kind of a composite of a lot of different songs, with everybody kind of making it theirs, adding in things that they felt like they wanted to do. It’s interesting, because some of the tracks that have stood up on that record over time, they’re really from the Candy Carol writing period. I kind of feel that people have a very complex opinion of that record, too, but to me it really feels like us in the latter days of the band, just doing what was right for us. There’s a vision of the writing on the wall on the record, that we had reached the end of the road that we were on at that point, and we needed a little break from each other.

Was it just general frustration about the band not breaking through to the next level? Or were you exhausted?

Probably both, just to be honest. But the thing is, we started as friends, and it sounds Pollyanna, but we really have remained friends over the years. So it never was this masterminded corporate recipe. “You need to make this mark and that mark!” Organically, we had just outgrown it. And I think we were a little exhausted. We toured Candy Carol like crazy. We needed to get back to our lives. I’m sure you’ve heard this with many other people who are in the music business, but while you’re out there working nonstop, your own personal life hasn’t developed at all. We needed to get back and just sort of reengage who we were as people again. So that’s what we did. I guess that was in 1993? But that’s where we said, “Let’s stop here.”

When you did the best-of, I know you had a contractual obligation, but was it something that you particularly wanted to do?

Oh, yeah. The thing is, what ended up happening after the band was finished was that I continued to work on projects myself, especially dance stuff, which is what I was into at the time. I was doing a lot of underground dance stuff, and it was funny, because it was all with a new type of methodology and technology and sensibility…and then all of a sudden the millennium rolls around, and you could just feel the sea change. People were re-interested and asking things like, “Did you used to use a Juno? Where is that Juno?” [Laughs.] People were interested in the whole process of how we used to make records, and…it just felt like a good time. I had been at the record company working on some other things, and Howie Klein, who was at Reprise at that point, was, like, “Why don’t we put out a best-of collection of your stuff?” And the thing is, “Boy” is kind of a classic song and a notable dance single, but it was never a #1 hit. We never had a #1 hit. So when we did the best-of, we ended up re-releasing “Boy” with some next mixes, and – drum roll! – it went to #1. [Laughs.]

Victory at last.

Victory if you wait long enough, right? [Laughs.]

You guys did a short tour behind the best-of, didn’t you?

We did a small amount of dates, but I think what’s always been slightly misunderstood about Book of Love is that we’re really just a little pop band. An alternative pop band. But because we had success with these dance records, we were put into these dance venues, and…we didn’t really feel comfortable with it. We also didn’t feel like we were right for it. We were, like, “If we can do our concert, if we can play our music, we’ll do it, but to go into a progressive techno or house dance club and try to sort of adapt these songs for that? No, we’re not interested in that.” It’s, like, if one of the songs I write clocks in at three minutes, I feel like it’s a success. [Laughs.] As opposed to, say, an eight, nine, or ten minute extended version. That’s not where our craft is.

So we ended up doing a few shows, and that was fine, but then over the years we started going back out there and doing it the way that we wanted to do and have always intended to do it, and it’s been great. I love doing shows. Our audience, the people who’ve stuck with us, they’re so loyal and so great. I know you said you’re a geek. Well, I’m a geek myself. You have no idea the minutiae I go through for my musical heroes. So I have nothing but respect for the fans that give us their respect. Trust me! [Laughs.]

You guys did the reissues of your catalog back in 2009, and now you’re doing the 30th anniversary collection. Where does Book of Love stand in 2016? Are you back together temporarily or for the long haul?

You know, what we decided was that over the last few years we’d had some really good shows, we had people asking us to do certain things, so when John Hughes [at Rhino] saw us do a show in L.A. last year and asked, “What about freshening up some tracks and getting them out there, now that there’s a whole new streaming world of people listening to your music?” I was excited by the idea. Even though our stuff is still around, it hasn’t really been newly mastered in quite a long time. And I’m one of those people who buys the five different downloads of “Under Pressure” because the mastering is just slightly different. [Laughs.] So I wanted to go ahead and just polish up the tracks that I feel like should still be out there just doing their thing, so we put together a compilation of tracks that we loved.

We did release some reissues in 2009, but they only came out on CD. So there were a couple of demos – the original demos for “Boy” and “I Touch Roses” – that we included on this compilation, as well as two new songs. They asked us if we would get back in the studio and create two new tracks. So that’s what we’ve been working on since the late winter and early spring: these two new songs. One’s called “All Girl Band,” the other’s called “Something Good,” and…it was fun! I actually just loved doing it. And now, of course, I’m already going, “Okay, so now maybe we should do this…” [Laughs.]

I don’t want to really lay out what our next plan is, but we’re back in action. The three girls were here over the weekend, we’re at my place in Brooklyn, practicing. It’s the foursome again, and…it’s just great. It’s all the corny stuff you hear about bands: there’s this unconditional stuff you have with each other just because of what you’ve been through together. You’ve touched the hand of God and hit the depths of Hell all together at some point. [Laughs.]

Lastly, I have to ask: what did you guys think when you got name-checked in The Dead Milkmen’s “Instant Club Hit (You’ll Dance to Anything)”?

Love it! [Laughs.] We’ll take it! That diss was a form of flattery, especially when we’re put right alongside Depeche Mode. It’s, like, “Hey, we’re in good company!”