“Concept albums are considered old hat these days, but I made a career out of it and I don’t see why I should stop now.” Alan Parsons and The Secret

Alan Parsons
(Image credit: Press)

Back in 2019 Alan Parsons talked to Prog about The Secret, his first album of new music in more than a decade, building a studio amongst the avocados of Santa Barbara, and the surprising special guest stars on his new album.

It’s the morning after Alan Parsons has just returned home to Santa Barbara, California, from being out on the road with the Alan Parsons Live Project and he’s understandably a little husky talking to Prog. Yet the road weariness can’t mask his enthusiasm to have new music to talk about.

A decade and a half after his last studio release, A Valid Path from 2004, Parsons is poised to release a brand-new album, The Secret. The long gap between releases stems from “no better reason than not having a record deal”, says Parsons, who was approached by Serafino Perugino of Frontiers Music to make an album. “He’s kind of been hunting me down to get me to agree to do a record for him for a number of years. I haven’t made an album in 15 years, so suddenly in came an offer from Frontiers in Italy and I started assembling the necessary talent, the necessary songs and so on.” 

Along with pulling in his live band and some famous friends (more on that in a moment), Parsons went so far as to build himself a recording studio to make The Secret. “It’s not actually in my house, it’s on my property,” he says. “I live on a fairly extensive avocado ranch and there was a lovely space available by extending an existing building. It was a generator house originally, it housed two big generators, and it’s now a full-blown studio with a brand-new Neve analogue desk and the latest Pro Tools. I’m delighted with the sound. It’s just a good, modern acoustic design and the console of my dreams. It’s wonderful.”

Given his prestigious reputation as a producer and engineer, it seems likely that the new studio will never be short of artists wanting to work there. “It’s definitely going to be run as a commercial operation as well,” says Parsons. “I can’t justify a studio of that ilk without also letting it out to others. Now that I have a studio, I’m going to get more into production again, maybe produce some other artists other than myself.”

Alan Parsons

(Image credit: Frontiers Music)

The general theme behind The Secret is about magic and Parsons himself is a member of The Magic Castle in Los Angeles, although the lyrics cast a wider net than just songs about conjurers. “It’s very hard to write a dozen songs specifically about magicians or magic, but what I hope we’ve done is to evoke the general vibe of the magic concept,” says Parsons. “Concept albums are, of course, considered old hat these days, but I made a career out of it and I don’t see why I should stop now.”

Fittingly, given the subject matter, the album opens with an arrangement of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. “That particular piece of music I’ve been living with since I was five years old,” says Parsons. “I owned a 45 EP of it with a version by Georg Solti, it was one of the first records I ever possessed. Of course, most people know the piece because of Fantasia, they think of Mickey Mouse running around with buckets and brooms.”

Parsons brought in some heavyweight players for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, including bassist Nathan East, who’s worked with Eric Clapton, Herbie Hancock, Toto and Stevie Wonder to name but a handful of his credits. “We got a fantastic rhythm section,” enthuses Parsons. “Nathan East on bass, Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, and this splendid orchestra under the direction of not only our orchestral arranger but our keyboard player in the band, Tom Brooks. Then the lead guitar parts, we got Steve Hackett to do those, albeit at a distance. He did it at his own studio in England.”

Plus, the track features Jake Shimabukuro, the virtuoso master of the ukulele. “He fills big halls, just himself playing ukulele,” says Parsons. “It’s almost hard to believe that a guy could be so incredible on an instrument such as a ukulele and he just holds the audience’s attention. He has a big part on The Sorcerer’s Apprentice as well, there are some nice passages that he plays. He’s most famous for his version of Bohemian Rhapsody on ukulele, if you can believe it. Incredible guy, incredible player. Very privileged to have him on the album.”

Alongside the ukulele star, another surprising presence on the album is singer-songwriter Jason Mraz, who performs the lead vocal on the song Miracle. Just as Hackett recorded his parts remotely, Mraz cut his vocals in Dallas, sending files over to Parsons in Santa Barbara, not that the session needed micro-managing. “I didn’t find it necessary in the case of Jason to give him much direction at all,” says Parsons. “He loved the song, he said it sounded like it came from Eye In The Sky, in other words like time stood still since 1982. He had a couple of lyric suggestions, like when to say, ‘Bring me a miracle,’ and when to say, ‘Show me a miracle,’ things like that.” 

The two musicians first met two years ago, but they didn’t get the chance to connect in person during the making of the song. “He was great,” says Parsons. “He’s a busy guy, I think he’s on tour right now in Europe. I’m very much hoping when he gets back here that we’ll be able to get together and by some accounts it looks like we might have a hit with that song. It’s showing quite well, particularly in Italy, where the label is, of course. They’ve been playing it in my hometown here, high hopes for having a hit single.”

Alan Parsons

(Image credit: Press)

In addition to the guest spot from Mraz, the vocals on the album are shared between the bandmembers, and Lou Gramm, who makes a guest appearance on Sometimes. “Lou was great, he’s still got the chops,” says Parsons. “I just felt that we needed a name or two, I had this brainwave to call Jason and it was wonderful that he liked the song. Likewise with Lou Gramm, he said, ‘This is a great song, I’d be glad to sing it.’ So we’ve got some really good names on the album – Jason, Lou, Steve Hackett, Vinnie, Nathan East. Maybe they are musicians’ musicians. Because Jason is appealing to a younger age group, I’m very hopeful we’ll capture a new audience through that. He’s been very gracious in posting stuff about us on his websites, which is very nice.”

With a background that includes working at Abbey Road Studios, where he was an engineer on The Dark Side Of The Moon, Parsons is renowned for his studio mastery. Yet while some of the contributions for The Secret were recorded at a distance, he remains a firm believer in the power of bringing people together to play music whenever possible. “That’s a pet peeve, when people feel that they can get a decent feel on a record by doing one instrument at a time,” he says. “I’ve always resisted that, and I virtually insist that at least three or four people play together on the original track for each song. I just can’t work like that; I can’t start with a bass line, then add a drum part and add a guitar part, it just doesn’t work. The whole basis of rock music is interaction between players and I’ve always been a stickler for that. That makes it cohesive and it’s much more fun that way. People enjoy playing with each other. It’s why live music is often better. That feel comes from the players’ interaction. I get so many demos which are just a guy and a guitar and they want the producer to bring it to life. Sometimes I’m sure some of the best songs have their beginnings that way, but in terms of actually recording, you’ve got to get a number of people involved.”

Parsons’ home in Santa Barbara is quite close to the Vandenberg Air Force Base, through which he’s developed connections with NASA. As a result of which the song One Note Symphony, off the new record, has apparently caught the ear of the space agency. “We all developed an interest in the space programme and SpaceX and all this stuff,” says Parsons. “Through the contacts at NASA we’ve managed to get this song slated for the 50th anniversary of the first man on the moon, the first steps of Neil Armstrong. That’s in July and we’re playing a free concert at Cocoa Beach, which is near the Kennedy Centre. We’re very excited about that. Another interesting thing, the final song, I Can’t Get There From Here, is written by a film director called Patrick Read Johnson and he has a movie ready to be released which he originally wrote the song for. I took his version, pretty much tore it apart and reassembled it for the album. But it will be the final song in a movie called 5-25-77, which is the date that Star Wars opened. Patrick was hugely affected by the release of Star Wars, the movie is a biopic about him, how he got into movies and special effects and all this kind of thing.” 

One of the biggest changes in Parsons’ career has been the move away from the studio-based Alan Parsons Project, to devoting much more of his time and energy to performing as the Alan Parsons Live Project. “It’s actually a regret of mine that in the early years we didn’t tour because I think had we done so we could have been as big as anybody,” he says. “We could have become a stadium act even.” That said, the music didn’t easily lend itself to being played live with the technology available in the 1980s. “That was always the challenge that we faced in the early days, the heavy orchestrations and countless tracks of harmony vocals,” he says, “but the band is incredibly versatile and the technology is such that we can get really good orchestral sounds out of keyboards now. And we have eight singers onstage, everyone in the band sings, so we rise to the challenge. I think we pull it off. Generally speaking, we have two voices on each harmony part, which makes it a nice big chorus sound. We enjoy making the vocal arrangements and pulling them off live, it’s good fun.”

Alan Parsons

(Image credit: Press)

Parsons says the band has received some of their warmest receptions in Russia, where he describes the audiences as “extraordinarily enthusiastic,” having performed there three times – not always in the places you might expect. “A funny story, we were booked into a venue called The Kremlin, we thought, that’s quaint, a club sharing the name with the government building, but it turned out it was the Kremlin. It was within the Kremlin walls and it was an amazing show. Apparently, people were getting up and dancing and that had never happened before.”

The Live Project is heading out on the road again, starting in America in April, going on to visit Canada, Europe and Russia, all culminating in the Apollo 50th Anniversary Celebration in Florida in July. But one destination noticeably absent from the itinerary is Parsons’ homeland, the UK. “Sadly, we were successful everywhere in Europe except the UK,” he says, explaining the Live Project’s absence from these shores. “We had one Top 30 hit, I think Old And Wise hit No.27 or something for a week or two, but we never really penetrated the UK market. It’s very strange but we seemed not to have the popularity there that we enjoyed elsewhere. Germany was huge, France, Belgium, Holland, Spain, so that’s the reason we haven’t done much touring in the UK. We’ve only ever played London – Shepherd’s Bush and that venue on the corner of Tottenham Court Road that’s no longer there [The Astoria]. I’m hopeful that will change, I’m hopeful we’ll find a promoter that’s willing to give us a shot.”

David West

After starting his writing career covering the unforgiving world of MMA, David moved into music journalism at Rhythm magazine, interviewing legends of the drum kit including Ginger Baker and Neil Peart. A regular contributor to Prog, he’s written for Metal Hammer, The Blues, Country Music Magazine and more. The author of Chasing Dragons: An Introduction To The Martial Arts Film, David shares his thoughts on kung fu movies in essays and videos for 88 Films, Arrow Films, and Eureka Entertainment. He firmly believes Steely Dan’s Reelin’ In The Years is the tuniest tune ever tuned.