Not many arrangers and composers in the USA have been as influential as David Axelrod. Starting out as a staff producer in the mid-sixties, he went on to become A&R and in-house producer for Capitol Records, working with musicians like Lou Rawls, The Electric Prunes, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley and Letta Mbulu. As well as producing several of his own solo albums, some of which were inspired by the poet William Blake, his work is recognised for its signature sound which blurred the lines between R&B, jazz, rock and soul, something that many hip hop producers, from Swizz Beats and De La Soul to Madlib and DJ Premiere, have praised by sampling his original compositions on their own tracks.
Someone else who has been both directly and indirectly influenced by the Axe’s work are UK duo Psychemagik. Danny McLewin and Tom Coveney cite that Axelrod’s delicate approach is nestled in their mindset. They even pay homage to him on their new album I Feel How This Night Should Look with the track ‘Triumph Of The Gods’.
Following the recent release of the LP, the pair pay homage to the late, great composer with a mix of his solo compositions and productions, alongside an interview about his impact on them…
Why does David Axelrod’s music mean so much to you?
Axelrod’s music is highly emotive on so many levels. It goes directly to the heart. It covers many moods from nostalgic to melancholic, it has soul as well as substance. It paints in the same way as his dedications to William Blake – hence the marriage of the two with his music. It’s as poetic as it is visual, it touches the soul and resonates deeply for those immediate reasons.
What makes an Axelrod record so unique?
He has a signature sound regardless of setting solo or production. You can hear it within so many artists from his early work with the Electric Prunes to Cannonball Adderley, Lou Rawls, Hampton Hawes and his son’s band Pride. As much as his diversity, it is his inherent compounded production technique that allowed others to flower but also to hear his impressive mark within these bands. Not only this but he chose a diverse array of instruments and applied them within that signature to this hallmark. He was not afraid of breaking new ground with the most subtle of refrains to the most dynamic of arrangements.
When did you first hear his music and what impact did it have on you?
About 25 years ago I was in a record shop in Wales near Portmeirion and this LP caught my eye due to it’s Blake artwork and I bought it on the strength of this alone, unaware of what I was about to discover as a new obsession. When I listened to the record I was immediately blown away like “What the fuck is this and where has this been all my life?” It was literally almost a religious experience!
What’s your most sacred Axelrod record and why?
‘Songs of Innocence’ is my stand out LP due to its intent/content. It’s a mood mosaic, subtle but also troubled and reflective. As an LP it’s perfectly sequenced. It flows effortlessly from track to track and side to side.
‘Now like a mighty wind they raise to heaven the voice of song or like harmonious thunderings the seats of heaven among…’
…from Holy Thursday (Songs Of Innocence) William Blake.
Any standout memories from dropping an Axelrod track in a set?
I played ‘Holy Thursday’ at Brilliant Corners this summer as my last track and pretty much everyone had gone apart from these two Italian guys who looked at me like E.T. had just landed.
How has his music impacted you as producers?
He has has a definite impact and recreating the Axe is not easy but his inspiration is nestled within our mindset. His delicate approach and instrumentation are a high bar and his techniques are outstanding sonically, especially the string arrangements which we are paying homage to either directly or subliminally. The way he produced and mixed records was exceptional. Allowing each instrument to be heard so distinctly yet perfectly interlaced in the mix.
How have you paid tribute to him on your new album?
Our track ‘Triumph Of The Gods’ is our humble tribute to him. We were lucky enough to record with a full orchestra at Air Studios. Tom played the main piano hook on this huge Bosendorfer grand piano and we recorded the brass section at Strongroom studios. It was one of those once in a lifetime opportunities that I’m eternally grateful for.
How did you approach this mix? What did you want it to say about Axelrod and his music?
Initially I thought I was gonna focus a lot on the samples and loop them up and make it more like an old breaks mixtape but then when I got into it I realised that these songs need to be heard in their entirety. So it ended up being more about the track selection and the sequence of them than a mix per se. I added some obscure B sides and instrumental versions that perhaps people haven’t heard before. I initially put about 50 tracks together and managed to whittle them down to about half that.
What would you say is Axelrod’s biggest legacy on music?
Probably his overall impact on hip hop and rap and from that his full appreciation are via those mediums. With so many producers sampling him it was natural he came to be fully recognised as a 20th century icon and figure within music. His fans are as diverse as his repertoire now thanks to the legacy he unintentionally made. This is a perfect example of how the torch is passed on metaphorically. His music has reached so many whether they are aware of the source via sampling or not. There’s so many iconic records that sampled him, his music helped shape that golden era, that particular sound. There’s no one even close to him. Amen.
David Axelrod – A Divine Image
David Axelrod – The Warnings Part I
David Axelrod – Wandering Star
David McCallum - House Of Mirrors
David Axelrod – One
David Axelrod – Everything Counts
David Axelrod – Holy Thursday
The Electric Prunes - General Confessional
The Electric Prunes - Holy Are you (Inst version)
David Axelrod – The Signs Part II (Inst version)
Pride – A Proud Sorrow
David Axelrod – Crystal Ball
David Axelrod – Merlin’s Prophecy
David McCallum – The Edge
David Axelrod – The Lost Lament
David Axelrod – Ken Russell
David Axelrod – Tony’s Poem
David Axelrod – Closing Hymn II
David Axelrod – Mucho Chupar
David Axelrod – Song of Innocence
David Axelrod – The Fly
David Axelrod – My Family
David Axelrod – The Human Abstract
Buy I Feel How This Night Should Look via Psychemagik.