Interview: Bill Holt (Dreamies)

October 18, 2010

The first time I listened to Dreamies I knew I was hearing something special. I remember buying it at Kim’s Underground in New York, but I can’t remember why I went there to buy it. Ian claims I read about it on an Aquarius Records new arrivals list, but I don’t think that was the case. I wasn’t using their site that much to catch the mid-’00s reissue. I feel like I heard about it either from someone inside a record store, or on another blog. Either way, I happily purchased it one day in July and immediately began sharing it with friends. I tried my best to find everything I could pertaining to the mastermind behind Dreamies, Bill Holt, but there was precious little information available on the Internet. The closest I came to contacting the man was in 2006 when his manager contacted me to ask me not to post music from the album on my website.

As far as I know, there is only one other interview with Bill Holt available on the Internet. It barely paints a portrait of the man or his music. After almost five years of listening to this record I decided to try tracking the man down. Figuring that time heals all wounds, I e-mailed Bill’s manager. Lo-and-behold, I was given contact information. An interview was conducted. I am so happy to be able to share this all with you, and I hope you enjoy and appreciate it as much as I do.

EL: [redacted]
BH: Bill Holt

EL: Let’s begin with your childhood. Can you tell me about your upbringing? Were you encouraged to create music or steer clear of creative hobbies?

BH: My childhood from 1950 on was about as close to Happy Days as real life gets. Happy. Secure. Good. Except…I’m from the generation that learned how to duck and cover under our school desks in case a Soviet atomic bomb dropped out of the sky. Worrying about war and atomic bombs was serious business back then, making life kind of uncertain. Risk taking did not seem so risky in those days. So communists, politics, and war were part of my consciousness from day one. Those surreal, happy, strange days of my Cold War boyhood are most definitely expressed in “Program Ten.”

I was born in South Philadelphia. In the 1950’s. We moved from the city to something brand new called the Suburbs. Everything seemed brand new in 1950. My father, with two brothers, owned an auto glass repair shop in South Philly called Atlas Auto Glass. In suburban Springfield I attended Catholic, then public school. Outside of school my days were spent exploring the seemingly endless forests adjacent to our new suburban brick colonial house. We went swimming in new-found swimming holes. It was all quite inspiring for a 7-year-old city boy like me, who rarely saw a blade of grass in Philadelphia. So I was off and running. I was always surrounded with good Huckleberry Finn friends, including two brothers, the older Bob and the much younger Bruce. My mom was very political, very civic, very involved. Her brothers were all creative types. All three of her brothers went overseas to fight against Germany and Japan. All came back alive carrying the sullen attitude of young men who found themselves in unimaginable situations.  My Uncle Joe was the main artistic one. He played piano. There was a piano in my grandparents house in South Philadelphia. Uncle Joe and Uncle Jim were technical guys (radar operators) in the service. Uncle Jim played guitar.

Uncle Joe had an amazing music recording machine. It recorded not on tape, but on wire. It was a Webster Model 80-1 Memory Machine. I was 5 or 6, but I still knew it was the coolest thing I had ever seen. They would play into a mic, That thin piece of wire would whirl and spin then there would be a scratchy recording to play back. Knobs. Switches. Meters. There were ham radios around. My dad fixed engines and everything else. So I was always surrounded by tools, gadgets, and curious people doing interesting things.

I was encouraged to be a bit of a showman. A ham. Egged on to sing Johnny Ray songs like “Cry Me A River” “Walking My Baby Back Home” at family gatherings. But there were no musical instruments in our suburban house. No encouragement. No discouragement. I don’t recall much guidance of any kind. Mainly just total freedom. Mom was busy with politics, tapping out steamy novels on her typewriter, and cooking Italian food.  Dad was in Philly running Atlas Auto Glass with his two brothers. I loved the way things were. Nobody much bothered me. We had the first TV on the block. Dad and his poker buddies would watch Rocky Marciano fights and fill the house with cigar smoke. Whiskey. Beer. Poker games. I was in the background soaking it all in. Meanwhile Mom was busy filling her filing cabinets with newspaper clippings about communism, Eisenhower, all the politics of the day. Our bookshelves featured Ayn Rand. She also prepared Italian feasts on Sunday. Homemade ravioli. Lemon meringue pie. The family would come out, uncles and all. Our crowded little dining room would erupt into loud heated debate sessions about all the world’s happenings. Communism, the Soviet Union, Korea. I remember asking how it was gorillas were killing GI’s in Korea. It was then I learned the difference between gorillas and guerrillas.

Uncle Joe went on to design dresses with his wife. Eventually he made good in California writing for TV shows like “Get Smart” and “Mary Tyler Moore.” The whole family would be on TV alert for his name on the writers credits. He would call when one of his creations was on. He still lives in Malibu.  Uncle Joe’s unorthodox free spirited career was inspiring even when I was a kid. While everybody else seemed to have a life set in stone, Uncle Joe seemed off the grid. Free spirited. Living by his wits. Playing piano. Recording stuff. Designing clothes. Writing TV shows. The contrast between Joe and the others stuck with me. My older brother Bob had a 45rpm record player and records. I would spend hours and hours singing with records and pouring my heart out. My buddies just hummed the tunes. I felt maybe I was too much into music.

If you ever watched James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause, that was my life in my late teenage years. Fast cars. I had a ’58 Ford convertible. Carole looked a lot like Natalie Wood. Lucky Strike dangling from my lips, top down, greased back hair. Crazy attitudes. No seat belts. Playing chicken at 110 miles an hour. Elvis haircuts.  Like I said, with atom bombs looming on the horizon, risk-taking did not seem that risky. The good thing was there were no drugs, only beer. Not because we would not have done the drugs, but because drugs simply did not exist in Happy Days. To this day I thank God, because I really believe I would have been a perfect candidate for trying anything and everything. My life — which turned out pretty good — would have be significantly altered. I spent the first 30 years of my life clear-eyed and cleared-headed. Ready to roll.

EL: So you listened to music and sang others’ music at a young age, but when did you begin playing music? What instrument(s) did you take up?

BH: In the mid-’60s the music scene really got interesting for me. I got my first acoustic guitar. Prior to that most of the music I heard on the radio required bands and background singers. Then, suddenly, there was Bob Dylan, a guy with a guitar who could barely sing in tune. He was the new Pied Piper. That was really inspiring! Bob Dylan was not so much a musical inspiration, he was inspiring because he demonstrated the courage to be original and the power of originality. I never thought that I could be the greatest singer, or really master an instrument, but I was absolutely convinced I could be original. I had a burning desire to make something as new as all the new stuff I was hearing: Dylan, The Beatles, psychedelic music. Compose. Do things different. I always felt that way. I learned to strum, finger-pick songs like “Sound Of Silence,” “We Can Work It Out,” “Like A Rolling Stone.” Old Elvis songs like “Too Much.” I decided early on I could strum the guitar okay, but being a virtuoso was not in the cards. That was okay. Most of the new musicians I admired were originals, not virtuosos. When all those new folks showed up on the music scene, the pieces were starting to fall in place for me. After a life in Catholic School and doing what you are supposed to do, suddenly the word was — it was okay to be far-out. Do your your thing. Corny-like. Do you own thing. It was a new concept back them. It was brand new to the world of men in gray flannel suits like me.

EL: Were you in bands as a teenager?

BH: In High School I tried hard to get some Doo Wop street corner groups going, mainly with my beer-drinking, touch-football-playing, girl-chasing, car-racing, teenage buddies. “The Maf” as we called ourselves. I would be standing in front of five guys trying to orchestrate some A Capella classic like The Five Satins “In The Still Of The Night.” I was picturing a burst of beautiful harmonies. It never really happened. I should have found new friends, but we were pretty bonded by then. The fad in those days was every guy with sideburns and a duck-tail thought he was Elvis. At school dances, summer parking lot dances, somebody would always show up as an Elvis impersonator and lip sync a couple of songs. My buddies always tried to push me, the passionate singer, onto the stage, but getting pushed onto the stage had all the appeal of being pushed off a cliff to me. I wanted no part of it. As the years went by I kept wondering why I loved music so much, why I heard every little thing in every song, why did I like singing my guts out in private, but had absolutely no interest in performing. Maybe it’s just one of those things you have to do. Then it will come naturally. But I never did make the stage. Not fear, just zero desire. Funny thing is my job at 3M was all about performing in public, and I excelled at that.

One the great things that happened to me with music was running into my wife’s friend’s cousin’s ex-husband Tommy. He was a real hippie. Unlike myself who came from a rather rigid Catholic hard working family, Tommy was from a broken home. His mother in public housing, he had no greater aspirations than to have fun. A genuinely authentic free spirit. Tommy was a toolmaker by trade. He made a decent living, had a wife and a house. But beyond that Tommy was about fun, not goals. Most of us envied the fun Tommy seemed to have. He was a great natural drummer. Tommy played in bands. He was a stage man. I was not. We would all go to little dark bars were his band blasted out stuff like Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl,” The Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down.” Tommy looked eerily like a not-rich Mick Jagger. He dressed like a hippie pimp. Totally uninhibited. I, on the other hand, was most definitely inhibited.

As it turned out Tom and I had a real gift for vocal harmony. If you ever sang harmony with somebody, you know singing good harmony is right there in the same zone as food and love when it comes to being pleasurable. Harmonizing with Tom made me feel talented. It was a gift. We sang “We Can Work It Out,” “Hard Day’s Night” …  “When I’m home everything seems to righttt / When I’m home feeling you holding me tightttt tightttt.” Man those harmonies were mean. Me hammering chords on my acoustic singing lead, Tommy singing low harmony, we were a hit at parties. When I was making Dreamies and running low on money a mutual friend got me odd jobs installing laboratory counters and cabinets in research labs far away from home. Sort of like installing gigantic kitchens. I hired Tom as a helper we drove long distances to places like Kentucky, long days and nights on the road singing to the radio, being free spirits. Kind of like Cheech and Chong. That was after leaving 3M, while making Dreamies, as a way to pay the bills. I think those road trips helped me finally break my bonds with the expected world. Tom died a couple of years back. We had long since lost touch. Tommy stayed hippie. I was always the entrepreneur. They buried him in what looked to me like a Sgt. Pepper’s outfit. It was sad, a solemn ceremony except his drunk, estranged daughter arranged for loud out-of-place rock music to blare out of ceiling speakers into the ears of the silent bereaved. The whole thing was kind of cheesy surreal. Tommy’s funeral was, as was my Beatle buddy Tom himself, very far out.

It was Tommy who offered me my first puff of weed. He was at a party in New York. We were at his house in Jersey. He built these huge speakers. Four feet high, three feet wide. We were sitting there listening to “I Am The Walrus”, by the time the “Sitting in an English garden waiting for the sun…but sun won’t come…” by the time that part kicked in I was high for the first time in my life. That was after years of listening to the Beatles. I was still working at 3M. Carrying a briefcase, while the world around me was filling up with flower power. Naturally, I sat there transfixed. “goo goo g’job I am the eggman I am the walrus.” I remember thinking. Now I get it.

EL: Before 3M you had to go to school. What did you study? Was music a part of your life during this time?

BH: Night classes at St. Joseph’s and Wharton in Philadelphia. I went from middle Catholic School to graduating Springfield High public school. That transition pretty much altered my academic path. Catholic school forced me to use my brain. I was always a straight-A honor role student. Public school was more or less free-form. Each year the my declining interest in study coincided with a rise in my interest in cars, girls, music, and life with the boys. School went from an academic experience to an inconvenient joke. I regret that. I pretty much went right to work after high school. Back in the day not having a degree was not the scarlet letter it is today. My dad made good without even finishing high school. I did gravitate towards the white collar world. Dad was always dirty from the shop, always exuded that the faint aroma of gasoline. My grandfather wore silk ties, doubled breasted suits, worked for Metropolitan Life Insurance. I liked the starched shirts and shiny shoes. I ended up taking evening classes at St. Joseph’s College and at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School. As with everything else in my life I had no real plan. Just go to college. I picked courses that interested me. I studied a conglomeration of things. Soviet International Studies, Advertising, Marketing. Just as I was getting into the routine of night school, I started having some major success with paychecks at 3M. My interest in higher education was solely for the purpose of getting ahead in business. The more I got ahead in business, the more my interest in night school waned. I had no musical experience at college because I never really had that dormitory college experience. Another regret. Eventually as a manager for 3M I had the chance to visit the beautiful campus at Villanova University. What an inspiring place. I felt cheated never finding my way to a place like that. But like most everything else, you play the hand you are dealt. I was always pretty happy with the hand I was dealt.  Music was more and more a part of my life in my mid 20’s. That’s when the Beatles and the whole ’60s scene was blooming. That’s when the guitar playing and the harmony singing stated. The art and music of the 1960’s was flashing all around me and my mainly black and white life as a corporate junior executive. It slowly became a real tug of war.

EL: You mentioned previously your working for 3M. What exactly were you doing for them? The way other websites have made it sound, it seems like your life was consumed with work. Were you working crazed- 80-hour week? Did you have any time to explore hobbies and enjoy life?

BH: I started working at 18, a few months after graduating high school. My first job was clerical claims adjuster at an insurance company’s home office in Philadelphia — directly across the street from where Dick Clark’s bandstand show originated. It was a very cool place: deluxe lunch, pool tables…the trouble was, my older male coworkers would come up to me and whisper “Don’t get trapped here!” At 19 I married Carole. I got a new job with Humble Oil (now Exxon) sorting through credit card receipts. Humble Oil came up with the slogan “Put a tiger in your tank.” They made us attach a fake tiger tail to our cars. I knew I wanted out. But working — and a newly married father — you do what you have to do. 1964 to 1973 was the 3M period. My life was full, with many interests, all of which I considered great fun. I was never all work and no fun. Maybe even the opposite. I was most definitely a hard-working “workaholic” when it comes to things I really enjoy. I really enjoyed 3M. People sometimes say Dreamies is dark, but I am not. I was a class clown in high school. Laughing, singing, dancing, making friends…I did that very well. Work at 3M was fun — it was 40 guys my age trained to military precision how to go out and make things happen. Sell 3M office equipment: overhead projectors, microfilm editors, copying machines…it was like being on the Dallas Cowboys, only with suits and briefcases. We worked hard and played hard. While I was a salesman, my time was my own. No Blackberry. No cell phone. If you sold stuff, all was well. If not, you got fired. Simple, pure, meritocracy. It suited me just fine. Eventually I was promoted to Insider Sales Manager, where I was called Mr. Holt. That was an 8-to-8 job with lots of responsibility, but for a young guy being promoted, being a boss was very cool. I had two jobs before 3M. Clerical jobs working with desperate middle-aged men — the likes of which would take me aside and whisper things such as “Don’t get trapped here like I did!” There was an abundance of friends, parties, music, bars, and I — am happy to recall — beautiful women. My wife Carole chief among them. My job at 3M transformed me from suburban bumpkin to a Center City Philadelphia man in a gray flannel suit with a big expense account. Patron of the finest restaurants. Prowler of the Center City nightlife. A Mad Man.

EL: And then you quit your job to make Dreamies. What was occurring around you when you made that decision? Did you have an idea that you specifically wanted to record an album, or did you just not want to work anymore? I guess what I’m getting at is both the psychological aspect of deciding to quit your job to create Dreamies, and whether or not there were social forces pushing you away from you work as well.

BH: I quit my job to make Dreamies. That, plus I was about to be promoted to home office in St. Paul, Minnesota. It was a real turning point. Go with the program or start a new life. It’s fun recollecting what was happening back then. Psychological aspects, social forces. All of the above.  It’s all of your question and more. One thing for sure is that quitting had nothing to do with not working. I actually love and thrive on inspired work. I have never been a person who saw doing nothing as fun. I find taking it easy not to be so relaxing. So no, I was not trying to escape work. Maybe more like trying to escape the ordinary life? I get a kick out of the new TV series Mad Men. If you know the show, I can tell you that pretty much is the world in which I found myself in 1968 when I was 25. The three piece suit. Skinny tie. The neatly cropped Peter Gunn hairstyle. Dutiful female secretaries with pointy bras busily typing. The black guy parking our cars. The expense accounts. The chain smoking in the office. The constant  drinking. All topped off with the Frank Sinatra fedora hat.  Leaving 3M was mostly about finding a meaningful way to contribute to life, something other than selling widgets for Mr. Willacker.

I didn’t start out that way. I just always did what people told me and it ended up that way. When I was hired at 3M I was just 21. I was the only person 3M Philadelphia ever hired for sales without a college degree. I was married and attending night school to earn a degree, so they took a chance on me. The idea was that young married men with children were hungry to make money. That was correct. The office was in a prime office space in Center City Philadelphia at Broad and Vine, in the shadow of William Penn on top of City Hall. There was even the iconic traffic cop doing his extravagant dance directing traffic with whistles arms and legs and waves. I was kind of a hick kid from the suburbs. No wardrobe. No city slickness. But 3M must have seen potential. They looked for presentable married white men who where hungry. That was me for sure. They literally directed the purchase of a new wardrobe for me. Company code. Dark three piece suit. White shirt. Plain thin ties. Everything neutral. There was a science to it. Clients should focus only on the message. No distractions by attire. Then I was fitted with a nice new hat. They might as well have been putting a hamburger on my head. I did not want a hat but I knew this was my golden opportunity. Then came the communications training, the selling skills, the poise and dinner at all the finest restaurants. They fine tuned me to be a 3M man. That’s were I learned how to order a Tanqueray Martini straight up. Nice and cold, thank you.

My boss was from New York City. He would take us to lunch and dinner. He would drink martinis and chain smoke. So would we all. 22 years old, 23, 24, the years went by and when I was 27 I was the boss. Except by 1969 the whole world I grew up with had been totally set aside for the Age of Aquarius. I grew up very political in a typical anti-Communist Cold War family. The two things I loved most other than the father, son and the holy ghost were music and politics. Back then Communism was not an intellectual exercise. It was the Soviet Union with nuclear bombs openly threatening to bury us. It was Vietnam terrorist bombings all over America. A high school friend of mine who sat in the next seat in math class, Barry Burnite, ended up in a dark place called the “ia Drang Valley” in Vietnam. It was the first time America’s troops were attacked directly by a mass of North Vietnamese Army troops. They say Barry died from a bayonet wound to the neck. In the meantime I was training young men to sell office machines. When I got into my car to drive back to Delaware at night mostly drunk, with Carole mad that I missed dinner again, from the AM radio came a strange procession of voices talking about the unfolding times. Buffalo Springfield “For What It’s Worth” … bing blang “There’s something happening / What it is ain’t exactly clear.” The countdown to leaving this 3M world was starting. Remember that story about listening to “I Am The Walrus” and smoking weed? I had cracked the code. Now I thought I finally understood everything. From there on out it was not if I would leave my Mad Men world, it was when. When my first song, “Sunday Morning Song” came to me, I knew what I was about to do was reckless. I understood my new-found frame of mind was not the rational, well-honed mind I was raised with. But I felt compelled to somehow try to capture what was happening all around me in music composition. I decided I would put my songs and news clips of what was going on together and call it “Dreamies.”

It was a conflict for sure. I would walk out onto Broad Street in Philadelphia impeccably dressed with my genuine calfskin briefcase, and there on the street would be people my age with flowers in there hair, guitars on their shoulders, protesting, singing about civil rights, war, earth day. With my briefcase swinging aimlessly on my left hand I could not help but wonder what life was like on the other side.

EL: Other writers have used the phrase “American Dream” to describe your life leading up to quitting your job. Did you at all feel like you were actually living the American Dream? If so, why give it up?

BH: I do think I was living the American dream at the time. I had a wonderful wife and two children I love. I had a nice new twin house with a picket fence, a company car, a corner office in Center City Philadelphia, people telling me I was doing a great job, people calling me Mr. Holt. But that period in my life — before the Dreamies album — started out with the Beatles singing “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and ended with “Let It Be.” A lot happened between 1963 and 1973. When I was starting as a 3M territory salesman in Philadelphia, I was out on my own in the City a lot of the time. I happened into the Center City movie theatre to watch Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. That’s the only movie I ever watched more than once. The Graduate hit my generation like a ton of bricks. It confirmed a lot of my inner doubts about what I was doing. That Jonathan guy in The Graduate was me and millions of other young men. We were being urged ever onward in world of material goals and manufactured desires. It was a conflict for sure because I love material things. The older generation urging a future in  “plastics” was a life path. In the meantime we had national guard troops deployed in Wilmington with machine guns on jeeps to stem black rioters, Patty Hearst was being kidnapped by weird Communist SLA squads, my friends were getting killed in Vietnam, bombs were exploding on Wall Street, John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. all were gunned down. All the while I was supposed to move to St. Paul Minnesota and make my mission in life selling more office equipment. I was going to be turning 30. Like a guy who saw a gap in the prison wall, I raced for the exit. Not that 3M was a bad place. It was really super. It was my graduate degree in business. Somehow being a hippie musician seemed like it would be lots more exciting than convincing people to trade in their their Xerox 914 for a 3M Model 209. Regarding the American Dream, I don’t think the American Dream is something you acquire, to me it’s more like something you chase. Like a rainbow or something. That’s what is interesting to me, the chase. So yes I was living the American Dream at 3M, but I wanted to see if there was another American Dream out there for me. So it was very much like winning at one thing then wanting to try your luck at something else.

Towards the end at 3M I was asked to attend a managers only meeting where I learned the subject was me. After much beating around the bush, my boss, along with my peers, informed my that I was letting my hair grow too long. A few months later, I won a prestigious managers’ award entitling Carole and I to fly to Pebble Beach California as special guests at the 3M sponsored Bing Crosby Pro-Am Golf Tournament. We then drove down the Pacific Highway to visit Uncle Joe in Malibu. This was 1973. Uncle Joe had long hair. He smiled a very relaxed smile. A television set was hanging inappropriately on rope from his bedroom ceiling. When I got back to Philadelphia I turned in my resignation. I was offered a ten week sabbatical to “Clear my head,” and an offer to run the branch office in Baltimore. I said goodbye.  I had written “Sunday Morning Song.” I went home at night and sang it. During a going away party held at my boss’ home, I was presented with a gift – a cuckoo clock. At the time, it didn’t click. I said thanks. Years later I thought – that was a hell of a thing – a cuckoo clock.

EL: Once you quit your job, how long did it take for you to conceptualize the album? Did you just fall into it and it organically constructed itself?

BH: Exactly. Dreamies did organically construct itself. I quit my job after I wrote “Sunday Morning Song.” I liked that song so much it gave me the confidence to make my move. After doodling a number of songs, “Sunday Morning Song” was the first song I ever wrote that seemed like a real song to me. A verse, bridge, chorus. Like something good enough for Neil Young or John Lennon. I liked it. The entire Dreamies album flows from that one song obviously. At first I was thinking maybe ten more songs like that would come along but as things turned out,  the album did finally organically construct itself from there. I liked the idea of a long collage. I read about Musique Concrète, John Cage, the avant garde composers. There was not a storyboard for Dreamies. No grand plan. More like picking up paints, drawing, drawing, until you are satisfied. Organic as you say. I like the idea of doing it in a way you a not supposed to do it. Maybe I was still rebelling from the Catholic School Fortune 500 discipline where I was always following instructions. Never making my own rules. So this was a chance to make my own rules. No record company rules, No music composition rules. My way. I never intended to make a standard album of songs. I started out knowing this would be a long collage with a “Revolution 9” flavor but with more of everything good psychedelic pop experimental. The main thing for me was nothing like anything you ever heard before. That was the goal. To make it they way I liked to hear it. Like nothing you ever heard before but still good.

EL: So many of the sounds on the album were created by cutting and splicing tape together. Was this something you learned on the fly, or were you proficient in this skill already?

BH: No I  was not proficient at splicing. I knew about tape splicing before I started, based on my years of just tinkering with stuff. Prior to buying the Teac 3440 4-track recorder, I had a number of recording machines and reels of tapes, but I never did splicing. The Teac was my first semipro machine with 10 inch reels. That meant I had to go to a pro equipment suppliers in Philadelphia to buy 10″ tape reels. At that point I got exposed to some of the methods commercial studios used, like steel splicing blocks to hold the tape steady as you overlay the ends, the blades, the adhesive tape used to bind the splice. The diagonal cut so there is no pop. I enjoyed that end of things immensely. I quickly learned it was something a recording artist producer needed to know. Cutting and splicing was usually something reserved for final editing. Something technicians and producers might do.

I think the fact I used hand-taped cuts and splices on Dreamies as a tool for composing not just editing helped make it unique. I was always sort of a nerd with gizmos and gadgets so using those little metal cutting blocks to cut tape at the proper angle to form a popless splice was fun for me. Kind of like building a model airplane. I never did build model airplanes as a kid, but I did make radios and go-carts and stuff. When cut and paste came along with digital editing — the possibilities are endless — which in a way is a disadvantage of sorts. It’s so easy you tend to overdo it. With the old labor intensive razor blade and tape method you tended to be more economical.

EL: How much time did this all take?

BH: The actual recording and mixing took a lot more time than performing the songs.  Inserting the sounds, figuring out how to combine recordings, the mechanics took a lot of time, but at the same time the composing was being done. So the year I spent perfecting Dreamies was one big recording session. A lot of work. From four tracks down to two then back to four. The whole recording process was frustrating. Much time was spent trying to maintain fidelity since tape was so noisy and Dolby was something you would find only in the best studios. Now you can have tons of tracks and not worry about how many times it’s copied. In the old analog world when you filled the four tracks you mixed down to two that freed up two tracks but you could do that once maybe twice before it got too noisy.

By the time I quit my job, I had pretty much set up my studio. I was confident I had what I needed to make my album. I had the songs and I had the equipment. The most important ingredients other than the music were the Moog Sonic Six synth and the Teac 3440 4-track tape recorder. Synthesizers were an exciting instrument in the early 1970’s. The idea that one keyboard could make any sound imaginable was tremendously exciting. Nothing could be more perfect for my vision. The downside of the analog synth back then was the fact that once you tuned in a sound you liked there was no way to “save” it. The Sonic Six had around 80 knobs and switches, it came with paper pad templates so you could note where each knob switch was positioned for a particular sound. Even then, when you tried to duplicate a sound from the settings you noted on the template it was never quite the same. I learned to record my synth sounds as I discovered them. Most of the drones and buzzes on Dreamies had to be recorded when found.  My studio for “Program Ten” and “Program Eleven” consisted of the Moog, the 4-track, a Revox 2-track, my Ovation acoustic guitar, a flanger effects unit, a modified drum machine, a very cool early mixer (can’t remember the brand) that was German. My mic was a good AKG. The vocal on “The User” in Program Ten was recorded singing through a cardboard paper towel tube aimed at the mic. One other ingredient in the Dreamies mix was a stopwatch. A lot of what goes on in “Program Ten” and “Program Eleven” occurs at timed intervals. A click or clack or effect every 30 seconds, a soundbite every fifteen seconds. There is quite amount of timed symmetry. I found using timed increments added a subtle continuity to what otherwise might becomes disorienting.

EL: You mentioned writing “Sunday Morning Song” before you left you job. Did that include the melody? Were all lyrics and music conceived before you started recording?

BH: I had the melodies for the songs “Sunday Morning Song” and “The User” done before I started recording. When “Program Ten” was done, I then wrote “Going For A Ride” and started from scratch on “Program Eleven.” As I said, I was so happy about writing “Sunday Morning Song” it was at that point I really got the confidence to go off and make the Dreamies album. I did record a lot of “Program Ten” non-stop, recording “Sunday Morning Song,” then began the process of cutting, pasting and adding until I had what I wanted. I did not know that “Sunday Morning Song” would essentially fill most of “Program Ten,” but it turned out that way as Dreamies unfolded. I recorded “Sunday Morning Song” first and worked from there.

EL: This might be a loaded question, but — what are the songs about?

BH: My only link to real show business was the creative Uncle Joe I mentioned. The writer in Hollywood. He did not understand my music, but he did offer one piece of sage advice when he heard I went from corporate to artist. He pulled me aside and whispered, “Don’t ever try to explain your art.” I think I finally get that now. So even if I actually knew what those songs were about, I think I would be inclined to follow Uncle Joe’s advice. Maybe I shouldn’t answer any questions? Years later when I was back to being a serious businessman a woman who worked for me said she listened to Dreamies. I was very surprised and a bit embarrassed. She looked at me with motherly eyes said she thought I sounded like a very sad young man back then. Truth is I was actually very happy. The songs came to me. Maybe through me more than from me. They are about things that were going on all around me,  through my mind.

EL: How much significance is there to each cut and spliced bit of tape? Were these pieces all chosen for a reason? Were they used simply to add layers of sound and noise to two “Programs”?

BH: I am almost embarrassed to admit how carefully obsessive I was in selecting every single little sound-bite. Nothing was left chance. Everything you hear was special to me in one way or another. Maybe that’s why people like Dreamies. It is not contrived. A lot of why something is where it is is my way of composing over my vocal weaknesses. It’s hard to listen to your own voice and love it. For me anyway. So when my vocal made me uncomfortable, I would mute it with a sound bite or a beep or a synth drone to paint over the vocal. There’s even a lot so far down you don’t hear consciously. I was experimenting with sublimination. Not sure if it works or not. But the JFK and LBJ nursery rhyme music boxing matches Walter Cronkite CBS news the jet fighters rifle shots all fit my precision view of things. Three shots at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Jack Ruby convicted of murder, Robert Kennedy – somehow it all made perfect sense to me. The boxing match starts at the beginning, the knockout at the very end of “Program Ten.” I was loving every second of it. Every piece was significant for me. No fillers. There was other stuff I wanted in there but it would not fit.

EL: How many live instruments are being played?

BH: Three, maybe four if you count the ticking stop watch. The Moog Sonic Six. The Ovation Guitar. The stop watch. The only other thing was a rigged up drum machine. I bought one of the first drum machines. All it would play is very standard 4/4 and 3/4 mechanical beats, so I took it apart, found out what little gizmo switches actually triggered what individual percussion sounds. I soldered 5 foot long pieces of wire to the internal trigger points, added new little push button switches on each wire, then mounted the 10 or so new switches into a plastic tissue dispenser box. So what I ended up with was this white plastic box with a dozen little red switches. Each one triggered a different sound. When you hear the different clicks and clacks throughout “Program Ten” especially, that was my third instrument: the tissue box percussion machine. Most of those clicks and clacks come at carefully timed intervals so as to add a bit of  timing continuity to what may seem random. I would look at the stop watch and add a certain click sound maybe every one minute throughout the entire piece.

EL: Did you have help from anyone other than yourself?

BH: No. With the exception of a few little parts in “Program Eleven,” in the song “Going For A Ride,” Carole was whispering a few things into the mic. She whispers, “Captain Harris,” but then she broke into a little laugh because what we were doing was kind of silly. I thought it was neat so I kept it.

EL: Was Dreamies the album you always intended to record, or was the result vastly different from the original idea, “I want to record an album”?

BH: That’s a tough question. I almost forget. But the answer is yes, I wanted it to be the way it is. A one of a kind. I can tell you that when it was done I felt  satisfied it was “done” and it was exactly the way I wanted it.  I sure did not just want to record an album. I knew I was no James Taylor, not a Bob Dylan, not a Beatle or a Beach Boy. I was Dreamies. I set out to do something original. Not the best singer poet performer, but I really felt I was the best at what I was doing.

EL: How did you get your album released?

BH: All a one man band operation. I had my marketing and merchandising skills pretty finely tuned from 3M, plus a business connections in Philadelphia so I commissioned the cover art with a Philadelphia advertising agency. I told them I wanted it to look like a box of Total cereal. Sort of satire of commercial music. Philadelphia was a waning recording mecca in 1974. DiscMakers — the company that actually pressed the vinyl records — was down in the industrial section melting huge vats of vinyl pressing it into 33’s and 45’s. That’s where I met the Ballen brothers when I was shopping for a way to get records made. I wanted to do everything myself. Morris and Larry Ballen got me excited. They were my age, they pressed thousands of records not just for the big time bandstand rock pop Philly labels but also for the occasional self published artist like me. They took the business over from their father. They got me excited because they were excited about Dreamies. At first I was just another guy who wanted a record pressed, but then all of the sudden, they offered to buy me full page ads in Rolling Stone and pay for everything in return for half the profit. I was excited because I could tell they were excited. That was the first time Dreamies saw the light of day outside my basement. Of course, I was too stupid to say yes to the Ballen brothers, so I was on my own. Larry and Morris suggested I use their elaborate professional tape facility to mix Dreamies down to the proper tape format for mastering. These guys were connected. They set me up for mastering at the renowned Sigma Sound in Philly where David Bowie recorded Young Americans in 1974. Further fuel was added to my hopes when the engineer who transferred Dreamies from tape to the hard pressing dye at Sigma told me it was the first album he mastered that he copied and took home. Morris and Larry set me up with interviews with all the best local music writers, got me a gig on Philadelphia’s leading progressive FM station — the magical WMMR 93.3 on your dial — and got it to a local record distributor and into local stores. In the meantime I was running small ads in Rolling Stone soliciting mail-order sales. I thought I couldn’t force an audience to appreciate this. All I could do is make sure it is out there, and let nature take it’s course. But the reality was the record business is a business. You make the records, you promote, you tour, you go from town to town. I really just wanted to make the record. So I sold a couple of thousand copies. Everybody said it was really “something”. And that was that. By 1977 I figured Dreamies had it’s chance to go viral in an analog world but it never happened. Funny thing is I didn’t mind that much. Except for being totally broke.

EL: What was the reaction like from your friends and family? Were they freaked out that you had quit your jobs to record such a unique album, or did they see it as the wonderful work of art that it is? That’s not say say I would expect them to think it was garbage, but for 1974 it certainly didn’t have the most accessible sound.

BH: No one in my family was of a mind to understand, much less appreciate Dreamies. My brother said it was, uh…ethereal. At the time I had to look that word up. Dreamies was far out. My family was not. They did have faith in me and Carole. After all we got married when we were 19 and instead of being a basket case, I ended up being totally independent, responsible, hard working, and successful. Sure they were freaked out about me leaving my iconic corporate corner office and the Fortune 500 job. At that time I was the local family boy who made good. I think my mom and dad thought maybe their kid was going to make it big. I wasn’t thinking big. I was thinking about making a living doing something I really liked without having to move to Minnesota. I do remember while morphing from white collar executive to hippie-looking unemployed musician my mother in-law — speaking for the family — said, “We don’t know if you are a genius or if you’re nuts.” That kind of remark will stick with you. I do wish I had an answer for her at the time. It was a really good question.

EL: What was life for you like after Dreamies? Did you find another job? Did you continue to create music? There is something of a “lost” period for you between when the album came out, when it was reissued in the early 2000s and when you recorded the follow-up album. What were you doing all those years?

BH: After Dreamies I went back to work. I started my own business, became a successful inventor, got involved in running for political office. I never lost my desire to make music, video, Dreamies…in a manner similar to quitting my corporate job, I sold my business at the height of success so I could once again pursue the old dream.

EL: What are you doing with your life now? Will you be recording or releasing anything else in the future?

BH: I live a nice life now. Carole and I still live in WIlmington, Delaware. I have a great home studio for music and video. I doodle on the Internet with my Dreamies.com video art and politics website. I am just kind of exploring the unexplored and seeing what develops. I have some great new songs I am working on. I will be releasing a new single on iTunes shortly, to be followed up by a 22-minute EP and video probably titled Dreamies Program 13. I am excited about that! Every now and then I get royalties from sales of Dreamies CDs and downloads. That is very much appreciated.

I make a habit of chasing down the illegal download sites. It kind of hurts to know that there are more bootlegs and illegal downloads done than honest purchases. Were it not for that, I would have a decent income from my work. That I have a nice group of fans who appreciate what I created is the greatest reward. I am very, very happy that my Dreamies album from so long ago is still making its way in the world. So thank you for being in touch.

11 comments

  1. Stephen
    |

    Thanks, both of you, for the entertaining in-depth interview. It motivated me to get a copy of the remastered Dreamies. CD, which I’m enjoying very much. I really like the sense of restless, half-dreaming consciousness that runs through the whole album, dark and insistent.

  2. |

    Is there any intention for Dreamies to be re-released onto LP?

  3. |

    Hi Brock, at this point I doubt the LP re-release will happen. You might try Gear Fab records. At one time they had LP’s. Thanks,

    Bill

  4. |

    Great interview on an interesting guy and fantastic album. A cool DJ on an independent radio station here in the NYC area played the entire album one Sunday morning–must have been back in the nineties. I called an asked him what it was, remembered the name and got the CD on amazon some years later. I must have played it a thousand times. It’s at the top of my favorites pile. Thanks, Bill. I’m going to order The End is Near and the remastered Dreamies MP3 versions–very cool. Thanks, Evan. Much appreciated, cool interview.

  5. |

    Wonderful interview! Thank you for this Evan.
    I’m a big fan of this album and, like Brock, I’d also love to purchase this on LP.
    This is what Gear Fab replied when asking for a vinyl re-release:

    “Fred, we did a vinyl version of the album along with the CD back in the early 2000 time frame. However, they are long gone. I might ask Bill if he is interested in doing it again. It would probably still be a good seller.”

  6. |

    Nice interview Evan. I’m the author of the “other” Bill Holt interview you refer to in the opening of your article (not exactly favourably, might I ad). My chat with Bill was originally a phone interview I conducted with him for the radio show I was hosting at the time here in Sydney. The interview you read was a transcribed and edited version of what was a much more extensive chat. Bear in mind that this was conducted well before Aquarius mentioned it or the reissue was put out (the reissue only came to light well after my original chat).

    I’d love to see more people recognizing this landmark release and hope that through our interviews, that the cult of Bill grows beyond a small few.

    Sorry if I got defensive…it just felt like your attitude towards a common interest was a little dismissive.

    Dream On,
    Lyndon Pike

  7. |

    Hey Lyndon,

    I don’t think I give a direct indication of what/where the other interview was with Bill. Although it might have been yours (I honestly don’t remember at this point) it could just as easily have not been. In fact, if you interviewed him extensively I doubt I would have been so flippant about it. I would have been happy to have another resource to use.

    Either way, I’m sorry it might have come across as a negative remark about you or your work. You do not sound defensive. I know if someone said something like that about that this interview I’d react the same way.

    Thanks for the comment. Stop by anytime.

    Regards,
    Evan

  8. jamie shehan
    |

    I am an old friend of Bill’s when he ventured into the political world. What a talented, intelligent, and mentoring gentleman Bill Holt is! Of course all his success is owed to the beautiful (& equally talented) Carole. You did a great job interviewing a great man.

  9. […] Musik bestimmt auch daran lag, dass sein Schpfer keine Konzerte gab. In einem ausfhrlichen Interview von 2010 sagte Holt, er habe einfach nur dieses Album machen wollen. Dass sich die Platte mehr […]

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