Never mind the down economy. In a different kind of bear market – and in pop music in general – Richard Morel is having a bullish year. The monthly DJ party he throws in D.C. with Bob Mould, Blowoff, popular with gay bears, has expanded to become bimonthly in New York, as well as regularly in San Francisco and Provincetown. He’s continued his remix and production work, usually under the handle Pink Noise, most recently for the brand-new Killers track, ”Human.”
And in the past year he’s undertaken his highest-profile project yet: working with Cyndi Lauper. He supported her on keyboards on a couple tour stops, and he co-wrote and produced several tracks on her appealing, dance floor-primed Bring Ya to the Brink, including boisterous lead single ”Same Old Fucking Story.” And the story goes on: Morel is currently finishing work with Lauper on the theme song to a new movie, Here and There, which will premiere at Sundance in a couple months.
For her part, Lauper cited Morel’s great new album, The Death of the Paperboy, released last month, as one of her ”Top Ten Greatest & Gayest Albums of All Time.”
”Rich and his talents go beyond any box or label,” she told Out magazine. ”His new record is the shit and he is a star in his own right.”
Morel spoke to Metro Weekly last week just hours before leaving for a Halloween edition of Blowoff for Provincetown’s ”Spooky Bear Weekend,” not too far from Wellesley, Mass., where he grew up. When asked if he was going to dress up, he responded, ”Maybe I’ll go as a bear.”
METRO WEEKLY: You and Bob have been throwing Blowoff for about five years now, right?
RICHARD MOREL: Yeah, can you believe it? Five years. It’s been going great and recently we’ve expanded it.
MW: Are the Blowoffs in different cities different, or are they pretty much the same as D.C.’s?
MOREL: When we go to New York and San Francisco there tends to be a difference in the guys and what they’re into musically. Overall it’s similar, but San Francisco seems so on the edge musically, like really knowing a lot of records and really asking about what we’re playing. New York is just crazy, party, good time. New Yorkers tend to be a little more ”in your face” — they’re just a little more forward, a little more rambunctious.
MW: You and Bob trade off during a night, each DJ-ing for an hour or so. Have you actually spun together at the same time?
MOREL: No, we have an overlap in the middle, but no. It works great because both of us like to socialize. It’s a nice way to do the evening. Blowoff for me tends to be way more approachable than a lot of other events I go to. Even though it’s a bigger event now, there’s still an element to it that has that aspect to it where you’re at a basement party. We DJ on the floor so people are always coming up and talking to us. They’re interacting with us as the whole event is going on, which gives it a more small-party vibe, even though we’re now playing in bigger rooms.
MW: And also the fact that the DJs are often shirtless makes it more approachable too.
MOREL: Yes, the DJs are much more approachable, as is the clientele. It has a much more casual sense to it. But the shirtlessness happens at a lot of gay parties.
MW: Yeah, but not with the DJs. I have seen DJs shirtless before, but it doesn’t happen on a regular basis.
MOREL: Well, good, I’m glad we’re doing something that nobody else is doing. Even if it is simply undressing. [Laughs.] But also, having two people, especially when you’re trading off on an hourly set, really gives the night a different flow and a different arc than just one thematic idea for five hours. That may be the other reason why the party moves like it does. The actual switching of the DJs. There’s a variety to it.
MW: Which is probably a little jarring for some people who are used to other parties with less diversity in sound.
MOREL: I think that’s also why people who like Blowoff, like it. For instance, if they’re hearing a record they don’t like, they know soon enough it’ll change. So the whole night progresses. I’m not trying to sound negative, but at a lot of club events, sometimes it’s really hard for me to distinguish where it started and where it ended — the music becomes almost like a wall that is happening around the event. There are moments at Blowoff where that’s the case – you’re not obviously focusing on the music the entire night – but stuff does pop out and that’s the excitement for me.
When I originally went to nightclubs, I was sneaking into nightclubs back in the late ’70s [in Boston]. The variety of what the DJs played by today’s standards would be astonishing. They were going from the Pointer Sisters to maybe ”Heartbeat” by Taana Gardner and then into Generation X – but nobody thought that was strange. That was just going out to the nightclub. And Blowoff kinda does that – we spin into rock, into house music, into electro, some trance, some ’70s rock, and just favorites from our entire record collections.
MW: You hadn’t DJ’d before Blowoff, at least not in a public setting.
MOREL: No, which is funny because I had been doing remixes and I’d been working with [D.C.-based DJ duo] Deep Dish, extensively working on a lot of their records. I had a DJ rig so that when I was working on remixes I could test how my remixes were sitting in with other mixes by mixing between them. I would test my mixes and I would listen to another mix that I liked and see how my mix sounded sonically coming in after it. But that was the extent of my DJ-ing.
It really has changed the way I do remixes. When you DJ, you get an immediate reaction and you can see how a record is working. I’ll test mixes as I’m working on them at Blowoff and I’ll get a gauge as to whether or not it’s working in the big room.
MW: Can you give an example of how a remix or production changed after testing it at Blowoff?
MOREL: Well, when I was working on the Cyndi Lauper record, I would play ”Same Old Fucking Story.” That went through a couple of mutations before the finished version. We brought the tempo up just to move it a little bit more. It wasn’t like a huge difference but it was enough that all of a sudden it made sense. It’s hard to explain but those differences sometimes can be monumental in the way it plays. So everything sort of plays into it because you see how a crowd is reacting and then you can finesse it.
MW: Right now you’re only DJ-ing at Blowoff?
MOREL: Well, I’ve DJ’d a couple of shows with Cyndi, at [Miami’s] White Party and in London this summer at a party called G-A-Y. [London] was huge. The party was great, the performance was great — it was a complete scream the entire time.
MW: You were DJ-ing while she was performing?
MOREL: At that one I put the tracks together for the show, and I did a new version of ”Girls Just Want To Have Fun” and ”She-bop” that she sings. During the show I DJ’d the tracks and played keyboards. All of a sudden she comes up to me and says, ”Do you know ‘Time After Time”’? We’d never rehearsed it, I had never played it on keyboards, but I knew the song. Everyone knows the song. So I said, ”Yeah, I know that.” She goes, ”Okay, great. How about if we play it?” This is in front of 4,000 people and I said ”You mean play it now?” And she says, ”Yeah, play it now.” And I said, ”Well, it’s in C, right?” She says, ”Yeah, it’s in the key of C, I don’t know the rest of the chords.” She’s not talking on the mike, she’s just talking to me at this point. She’s like ”just go with it. I’m going to sing and the crowd’s going to sing along so loudly that anything you hit will just be jazzy.” So I said, ”Okay, fine.” And that’s exactly what happened. As she started singing, nobody could hear anything because they were all singing so loud.
MW: How did you end up working with Lauper?
MOREL: [Music publicist Carmen Rizzo] called me and said that Cyndi was looking for potential collaborators, could I send some music over? I put together three tracks and she really liked them, so she asked me to come up to New York to work with her in the studio. That’s how the whole thing started. It was pretty simple.
We hit it off right away. I remember when I first showed up for the session, she came in and she had an idea for one of the songs, which wound up being ”Set Your Heart.” She’s very interactive in the studio as far as throwing ideas around and going back and forth with you. We had a good chemistry that worked really well just when we were hanging or when we were working. We wound up doing four songs. Now we’re doing another song for a movie, a downtempo ballad, which is gorgeous, it’s beautiful. It’s a very sad, very ’60s, kind of Laura Nyro/Todd Rundgren sound. Her vocals are unbelievable.
MW: Your new album is called The Death of the Paperboy. You mean that both in the metaphorical sense – in the sense of loss of innocence and time of change – but also in the literal sense.
MOREL: Exactly. It’s a metaphor but it’s actually a true narrative as well. After [2004’s] Lucky Strike, which had some similar thematic ideas within it, I had written maybe four or five of the songs that are on The Death of the Paperboy but I hadn’t written the title track yet. They were all following a similar theme that for me had an adolescent perspective — and I mean that in the most positive of ways. Meaning, there was a certain naivetÃ© surrounding the perspective of the writer, who was me. For instance, ”No Makes Me Lonely” is a simple broken love song basically, but it was written through the perspective of a 17-year-old more than somebody my age.
When I was writing these songs in my headspace, I was constantly reflecting on things that had happened to me when I was a kid. ”The Death of the Paperboy” came about because I was reflecting on that and it kind of summed up the whole cycle of songs that I was writing. I thought it was a good title and starting point because that event was one that had a monumental change. I remember the impact of it and I remember how things changed after it. Did you ever see that movie The Ice Storm, with Sigourney Weaver? It’s that type of thing where everything was kind of idyllic and you’re living your life, everything’s fine, and then this event happens and you realize that everything you count on and everything you think isn’t necessarily the way it is.
MW: You were how old at the time?
MOREL: I was maybe 14. It was my close friend’s older brother who got hit and killed. The person who ran him over was my next-door neighbor who was only 18 or 19. He was coming home after being out all night. So everything just got kind of crazy in ’70s American suburbia.
MW: One of the things that strikes me about your music in general, and this album in particular, is that there’s a lot of uncertainty. Some people might find it depressing but it’s not actually depressing – you kind of express a universal quest for some sort of purpose in life or for a human connection.
MOREL: Yeah, I would agree. I don’t find it depressing. At the times when stuff is the most difficult, whether it is a relationship that’s disintegrating or a relationship that didn’t happen the way you wanted or the loss or the actual death of somebody of your life, ironically for me those are also the times where you actually feel more alive than you do in just your day-to-day routine. Those are the moments that really make me feel like I’m a human being – I’m really glad I can feel that bad and that good. The highs and the lows, I appreciate both of them because they make me land on the planet and say, ”Well, this is what I am and this is what I’m stuck being and that’s great.” All of it. Because if you take any of it out, how great would it be? It would just be waking up – you’d almost be in a Kafka novel or something. And you wouldn’t know it, it would be horrible.
This year has been a zinger but it’s all part of the picture. Because those are the things that make you human. The capacity to love somebody and have a relationship and have a family or whatever you want to call it, the reason that is so strong is why you feel so badly when things don’t work out. That’s the other side of it. If you didn’t feel that badly when it didn’t work out, it would never be strong enough to make it hold together in the first place.
MW: Why do you call this year ”a zinger”?
MOREL: I’ve been with my partner for 15 years and there was a lot of loss in his family this year. Both of his parents died. And then our dog, Chief, died — he was like my best friend for almost 11 years. It’s just been a tough year on that front. You know, people who don’t have dogs think, ”get another dog,” but if you are a dog person or have a dog or know dogs, you have a certain closeness and relationship. And, other than traveling for shows, I work at home. I was with Chief 24/7. And he was a great dog. So that was a really difficult time.
MW: Are you thinking about getting another dog?
MOREL: Yeah. But I have too much traveling right now to do it. And I’m hesitant because it was difficult going through that and I’m not sure I’m up for it again. That’s kind of the arrangement you make when you get a dog. Hopefully, unless you don’t outlive it — but I kinda prefer outliving the dog. [Laughs.]
MW: You’re working now with your life partner Nick Lopata.
MOREL: Yeah, Nick does video work. He does the video DJ-ing at the Blowoff shows and we’re now working on putting out videos for Paperboy.
MW: He also gets a credit on this album that I don’t think he did on the previous sets.
MOREL: The mixing credit. He’s been doing that for a long time, at least 10 years. But he was more active [this time]. His feedback has been great. Sometimes you get so in the thick of it you can’t hear anymore and you can’t tell if something is right or wrong. He was always the other set of ears that would be pointing me in a direction and say, ”This is right, this is wrong.” And since he knows me so well he never holds back from his honest opinion, which is really valuable.
MW: He’s also not worried that you’re going to fire him.
MOREL: Well, I could fire him but it wouldn’t work. [Laughs.] I think I did fire him once. But he’s very honest and he’s always been that way.
MW: Are you planning to tour with the album next year?
MOREL: We’re still trying to figure out what we can do financially and logistically. We’re initially going to start doing videos. We have discussed doing a more stripped-down show which would have Nick doing live video-mixing using the different clips and themes that we put together while putting together the videos for the record. So it would have a live video element, similar to what he does at Blowoff.
MW: What inspired you to include a dance cover of David Bowie’s ”Sweet Thing” on the album?
MOREL: I’ve been a huge Bowie fan since I was 12. And that song in particular was the first song I registered as being a completely homosexual song lyrically. As a songwriter, I liked the fact that it was telling a long narrative. When I’ve been stuck on lyrics, that song comes into my head and I will reference it as a starting point.
MW: The new album seems to be the deepest you’ve gone in a rock direction in your career.
MOREL: I do think it is. There were elements of that on Lucky Strike. There were definitely songs that were pushing in that direction. But this goes a little bit further.
MW: Was having two discs, with one focused on rock, your way of transitioning to becoming more of a rocker?
MOREL: No, I don’t think so. [For my next set] I’m not looking so big thematically. I’ve just been working on musical ideas and thoughts. I’m getting turned on to a lot of simplistic music now so I don’t know what I’m going to do as far as what my overall goal will be but I’m kind of feeling like I need to do something that’s remarkably simple and smaller. You know what I mean? It took a lot of out of me to do this record so I’m kind of thinking maybe I should do a disco album.
MW: All happy lyrics and light and fluffy?
MOREL: Yeah, because the process of this record did take a lot. I’d kind of like to do a little light disco, like a KC and the Sunshine Band record. Anything like that would be great.
Morel’s The Death of the Paperboy is available at Amazon, on iTunes and at most retail outlets. The next Blowoff at the 9:30 Club is scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 22. For more information, visit www.blowoff.us. For more about Morel, visit www.morelworld.com.