Friday, March 07, 2008
Interview: Brent Spiner on Dreamland
We were fortunate enough to meet with Brent Spiner on Monday in London and he was pleased to spend some time answering your questions. It was also an opportunity for us to quiz him about his latest project, a dreamlike concept album in which he acts and performs classic American songs alongside Maude Maggart and actors Mark Hammill (yes, Luke Skywalker) and Pat Richardson. It’s a collection of his favourite musical standards, iconic numbers from the "great American songbook", strung together by an immersive narrative that takes the listener on a romantic noir journey.
Settling down to sandwiches in the elegant drawing room of a hotel near London's Soho, we asked him a little bit about the inspirations behind, and aspirations for, the music disc.
What made you get started on this project?
Spiner: "I wanted to do a CD, and vocally I’m most suited to singing American standards - because I grew up with that kind of music, listening to people like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, so that’s the kind of music I most prefer."
And did you ever see those legendary artists perform live?
Spiner: "I saw Sinatra live! Actually it was at LeVar Burton's bachelor party. We all went to Las Vegas. There was Jonathan, Michael Dorm, LeVar and myself, and we went to see Sinatra - he was at the end of his run. It was incredible: he wasn’t at the top of his game because it was really near the very end, he would lose the lyrics and vocally a lot of it was gone. But every now and then there would be a line or a phrase and you would go, 'That’s Sinatra!' It was quite incredible and a wonderful experience."
So you're a lifelong fan! What is it that appeals about their music?
Spiner: "They call it 'The Great American Songbook'! Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, Duke Ellington… and I think that says it all, those are the best songs ever written. There’s a reason they’re called 'standards' because they will be sung and played for eternity. There aren’t many of those coming along now: The Beatles wrote what became standards, but there are few others. I don’t know who you can point to now who in 20 years will still be popular. Will people be covering the Chilli Peppers in 20 years? They’re great, but those classic old songs are songs for all time. They express the entire roller coaster of human emotion and feeling, with beautiful melodies, and that’s why they’ll always be here."
Do you have a particular favourite? Something you had to get onto Dreamland? Spiner: "Yes… but it didn’t make it on to the final disc! My favourite standard is an Irving Berlin song, 'How Deep Is The Ocean?'. It’s just a great song…"
At this point, Brent Spiner sings a few lines of it, extremely well. I'm in an Edwardian drawing room and Data is singing to me...
Spiner: "There you go, you know it? Arguably the greatest standards ever written are 'How Deep Is The Ocean?', 'All The Things You Are to Me', 'Stardust' and 'Sophisticated Lady' - 'How Deep Is The Ocean?' was in the Dreamland script: but everybody who read the script said to me, 'That song is such a downer!' Even though it expresses a very positive thing, the melody is really kind of sad and it was right at the end of the CD, so I was persuaded to end with upbeat number. When he is expressing what he feels for her: in the script she said, 'Tell me how much you love me!' and he starts singing that song… But everybody said, 'Go with something else'. My favourite, but I lost it."
In the story he's drifting in and out of sleep - are dreams something that inspire you? Do you have powerful dreams?
Spiner: "I do I really do! They're the most interesting thing about people. We have no idea what they are or where they come from - how do we know all these people that appear in our dreams? I tried to capture that. There are little things. When he wakes up next to her in bed, it turns out that she's somebody else! And that happens in dreams, where all of a sudden someone becomes somebody else and you don't know how that happened. And you were someplace else and now you're there…"
He offers to give her a lift but he doesn't have a car… he has a train! Similar deal?
Spiner: "Exactly - in a dream he can have anything. Also, what does he do for a living? At one point he's a singer in a club. But earlier he was just a guy on the street! How did he become a singer in a club?"
It owes a lot to film noir as well. Do you love that classic style of movie making too?
Spiner: "Yes, I am a big fan of '30s and '40s films. The whole noir thing - I like black and white a lot, I think that it's more beautiful than colour in general. You can light it better: colour is colour. If you shoot outside, it’s outside, the sun is the sun. But with black and white you can do so much more, you can paint with black and white, with shadow. I saw this music project in varying shades of black and white; a video version would be black and white with occasional splashes of colour."
You’ve got some great performers on the disc – have you worked with them before? What was it like?
Spiner: "All were amazing. Obviously Maude Maggart is a sensational singer. She got involved due to the fact that I bought a Toyota Prius! It's all about being green. I was driving a Mercedes that was powered with something like rocket fuel! It was the fastest car – I loved it, but it was irresponsible so I convinced myself that I should be driving something more politically correct. I got a Prius, and it turned out that the car came with XM satellite radio, so I had that hooked up – and I loved having it. Suddenly I’m listening to old time radio shows while I drive. There’s a whole series of shows based on the decades – I switched mine to the '40s. There’s a show from New York called High Standards and I heard Maude sing on it, and she sang a Cole Porter song called 'Looking At You'. I was knocked out. I looked up her website, bought her three CDs (she has four now), and thought, 'It’s gotta be her or I’ll be so disappointed'. It was fun for her too because she’d never acted really and she’s good."
"And Mark Hamill – that was just a lucky stroke! I knew Mark a little bit and my friend Mac who did the arrangements is good friends with him. So he asked Mark if he’d do it, and sent him a script - and he liked it! 'Let’s do it!'"
You mentioned Maude’s website and of course you’ve got your own site – what’s your relationship like with the online community? Fandom is more of a dialogue these days than when Star Trek was on the air, internet users can be both supportive and critical…
Spiner: "It’s a strange thing. I have a MySpace page now as well. Some people said, 'I bet he just made a website so he can sell his disc.' But I don’t feel ashamed of selling my CD. I say to them, 'When you work, don't you get paid for it?!' I discovered this aspect of the way online fandom communicates: for the most part people are really nice. But you know, anonymity makes people brave! They feel able to be really nasty if they want. But I guess that’s all part of the deal; love and hate are really close, there’s a fine line and sometimes they overlap. People can hate you because they love you. It is an interesting thing."
Is the CD only available through the site, or can you get it in shops?
Spiner: "Right now it’s only available on the site, except for here in the UK. Very soon you’ll be able to get it in the Dress Circle store in London. It's the only store I know of in the world that is going to carry it, and that’s just the sheer coincidence of me walking in there the other day and talking to them about it."
Thank you, Brent Spiner!
To read more responses from Brent Spiner – including his answers to your general questions - look out for the Fannish Inquisition article in a forthcoming issue of SFX magazine.