10 Questions For Electronics Pioneer, Keyboardist Roger Powell of Utopia

Publish Notes: 

The Message For The Week Chester, VT. Nov. 14, 2007

10 Questions For Electronics Pioneer, Keyboardist Roger Powell of Utopia
10 Questions For Electronics Pioneer, Keyboardist Roger Powell of Utopia
10 Questions For Electronics Pioneer, Keyboardist Roger Powell of Utopia
10 Questions For Electronics Pioneer, Keyboardist Roger Powell of Utopia

Electronics/keyboardist icon Roger Powell is perhaps most widely known (musically speaking) for his work with Todd Rundgren’s band Utopia. However Powell’s talents and contributions go far beyond as an electronics wizard, computer programmer, inventor and oh yeah, the protege of the late legendary Robert Moog, creator of the Moog Synthesizer. Joe Milliken recently caught up to Mr. Powell to not only discuss his career, but also his latest CD release Fossil Poets.

Photo #1 - Powell at home, 2007
Photo #2 - Powell with Robert Moog, 1970's
Photo #3 - Powell with Debbie Harry and Andy Worhol, 80's
Photo #4 - Powell with The Probe, 1980's
All photos courtesy of Roger Powell
Joe Milliken: When did you first become interested in music and who were some of your earliest musical influences?
Roger Powell: My father was a brick mason and my Mom could play hymns on the piano. My Dad was a big fan of Classical music and European Opera and had built one of the first stereo vinyl record setups that came out in the late 50’s. These were amplifier and speaker kits made by Heathkit. My Dad had an extensive collection of Opera and Classical music which I would hear a lot growing up. One of my earliest memories is of my parents standing me up in a chair so that I could mimic one of the tenors singing an Italian Aria in front of their friends. I had no idea what I was singing but had a good time doing it.

JM: Where did you attend school and how did you first get involved in electronics?
RP: I attended school in a small town in Northern Virginia where I first took piano lessons and cornet lessons. My uncle Bill had one of the early tape recorders and he allowed me to borrow that. I started making little pieces of music where I would record one part on the tape recorder and then play along with it. That’s how I got started in music and technology at a very early age.

JM: What was the first band you were involved in and how did you first connect with Todd Rundgren for the creation of progressive rock pioneers Utopia?
RP: The first band I was involved in was in high school and was called the 'Born Bluesers'. We mostly covered early Rolling Stones, Blues and some of the Beatles stuff around 1965. I also worked at a radio station in town and we got promo recordings all the time. That helped us to learn the music! Todd’s management called me in 1974 and invited me to a concert that Utopia was playing in New York City's Central Park. They were looking for someone to fill in for a synthesizer player (Jean Yves Labat, a.k.a. Mr Frog) who was leaving the band, so I joined later that summer.

JM: How did the development of the Powell Probe come about (a shoulder-strap keyboard) and how long did it take to complete that first remote, hand–held polyphonic synthesizer controller. If that is indeed an appropriate way to describe it?
RP: That’s the right way to describe it… I had this idea that the keyboard player should not be stuck behind the keyboard. Frankly I was jealous of the guitar player who always seemed to get the girls! The guitarist could move around and posture at will. I thought it would be really cool if a keyboard player could move around the same way. I worked with an engineer Jeremy Hill (from ARP) though it was after we had left ARP. I designed how I wanted the thing to work and he designed the electronics. We also had a sculptor to make a model of how we wanted this thing to be shaped. It took a couple of years to develop.

JM: How did your apprenticeship with electronics legend Robert Moog come about and can you tell us an interesting antidote or perhaps something you admire or learned from him?
RP: My work with Moog came after my involvement with ARP. After I released Cosmic Furnace in 1973, I left ARP and soon hooked up with the Moog Company and was lucky enough to spend quality time with Bob. This was not a daily contact. He liked my music and we both have a similar sense of humor. I promoted the Moog equipment, and would consult on design ideas for products.I remember going to his house in upstate NY and his wife Shirleigh at the time would cook for all these famous stars that would visit. I remember on the day that I was there that Shirleigh asked whether I would like to have her cook what Keith Emerson likes? She has a book published on a bunch of those recipes!

JM: Tell us about your work with WaveFrame and how it related to Peter Gabriel. Do other musicians utilize this audio mainframe synthesizer?
RP: I joined WaveFrame in 1987 after a couple years of marketing Texture, one of the first MIDI sequencer programs for the IBM-PC. Utopia had disbanded and I was spending more time on software development for musical tools. To be honest, Peter Gabriel picked this up later and I was not involved, other than helping write a bunch of the operating system software for the AudioFrame.

JM: You are also responsible for the development of one of the first PC MIDI sequencers called Texture, originally developed for the Apple II. Tell us what Texture could do and how its' significance may have effected the industry at the time?
RP:Texture was actually designed to record music in drum machine fashion as patterns that you could string together. It was somewhat unique in that you could apply this drum machine pattern metaphor to all the parts you would record, not just the drums. I also think it was unique in that here was a piece of music software that was designed by and for musicians. It was pretty much a solo effort in the beginning although later I did get major help from Slim Heilpern at our company Magnetic Music.

JM: You recently released your fist solo effort since 1980's Air Pocket (recorded on Rundgren's Bearsville music label) with 2006's Fossil Poet with musicians Gary Tanin and Greg Koch. Tell us a little about the project and is it fair to categorize the music is as “retro-future?”
RP: Yes it’s fair to categorize the music as retro–futuristic, although I would also classify it as being schizo–phonic as well.Therefore it is schizophonic–retro–futuristic, or SRF, for short. Remember that! [laughs] The project came from a lot of original fragments that I came up with. Then I enlisted the help of an old friend and well–known producer Gary Tanin (from Milwaukee) to help me try to finish this project. And oh my God, we actually did it! I don't like to be seen self–promoting but we continue to get positive reviews all over the world. We have consistent air play on Internet radio station RadioIO where Fossil Poets has been in Top 30 rotation.

JM: What are you looking at for your current or next project? Can you see yourself working with Todd Rundgren and/or Utopia again in the future?
RP: There have been efforts to put together a Utopia project although I’m not sure whether that is likely. It’s possible that I could work with Todd again maybe on a different basis, maybe not on a Utopia basis. I’ve learned a lot from Todd and I have great respect for him. It would be nice to do something with him again. For my next project I’m thinking of doing a solo piano improvisation album. We’re also investigating what the future might bring for a second Fossil Poets album.

JM: Name a musician whom you admire and would like to work with.
RP: They’re all dead! [laughs] Well, that's a bit harsh perhaps, but I'd really would have liked to work with Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn... now there's a band!