QUICKSILVER Messenger Service was a band that was there right at the beginning of the blossoming San Francisco Scene. The band formed in late 1964 with a line-up of David Freiberg on bass, John Cipollina on guitar, vocalist Jim Murray, drummer Casey Sonoban and guitarist/vocalist Skip Spence (later to be with Jefferson Airplane and then Moby Grape).
By mid-1965, guitarist Gary Duncan and Drummer Greg Elmore (from the beat group, The Brogues) joined the ranks in place of the departing Sonoban and Spence. Murray left shortly after the group's appearance on the soundtrack of Revolution in 1968.
The remaining line-up of Duncan, Freiberg, Cipollina and Elmore mixed standard blues and folk with extended instrumental workouts and soon became a major live attraction in the San Francisco area. This line-up recorded two critically acclaimed albums, the self-titled 1968 debut and the mostly live Happy Trails the following year. The latter features the 27-minute jam on "Who Do You Love", the centerpiece of their live shows at the time. It's also generally regarded as the pinnacle of achievement for the acid rock guitar sound and captures perfectly the spontaneity of the psychedelic era. Both of these albums have just been released as budget-priced CDs by Capitol.
After Happy Trails, Dino Valenti (author of "Get Together") joined the band (he was supposed to have been in the original band but was doing time for a drug bust). Valenti's vocals and his strong songwriting became a focal point for the group.
With numerous line-up changes, the band cut another five albums (the best of which were 1970's Just For Love and 1971's Quicksilver) before reuniting the "original" band, which actually turned out to be Freiberg, Duncan, Cipollina, Elmore and Valenti, in 1975 for Solid Silver, a good record, but a comparative commercial flop. After the failed reunion, Cipollina went back to his various projects and Freiberg returned to the Starship. Quicksilver continued with a nucleus of Valenti, Duncan and Elmore. The band toured for a number of years with numerous line-up changes before fading into what seemed like obscurity. However, in 1986 Quicksilver resurfaced with a line-up of mainstay Gary Duncan, David Freiberg (back from his stint with the Starship) keyboardist Michael Lewis (he was in on the Solid Silver sessions) and former Hot Tuna drummer Sammy Piazza. This line-up released one album, Peace by Piece, on Capitol. It was a contemporary sounding record with most of the material coming from the pen of Duncan and Piazza, but it still had the characteristic flickering guitar work from Duncan as well as several good tunes. Unfortunately, the label did nothing to help promote it.
Since then not too much has been heard from Quicksilver, that is, until now. Gary Duncan and David Freiberg have been busy working in the 24-track studio that Duncan had built. A new album is in the works and both Freiberg and Duncan spoke enthusiastically about their new project in recent interviews which follow.
RELIX: Why don't you just start off by telling us what you have been doing since leaving the Starship?
FREIBERG: I have kind of been in self-imposed computer school. I have been learning about the music computing business, getting into Macintosh and sequencing and sampling and synthesizing music and all that stuff.
RELIX: What was it that made you leave the Starship? Was it just a matter of musical direction?
FREIBERG: Yes. I mean I wasn't what they needed and they weren't what I needed.
RELIX: I remember reading somewhere that you were having trouble getting your songs on their albums?
FREIBERG: Well, not really... everybody was having trouble getting their songs on the albums because all they wanted was hit top 40 singles, so basically most of them are written by outside writers and producers and so forth.
RELIX: Do you have any material left over from your Starship days?
FREIBERG: Oh, one or two, but I am not too hot on them. Usually if you don't get them on right away there's a reason. Either they weren't good enough or you hadn't finished them. Sooner or later all the old tunes come back around and you can see the second time around what you should have done and you say thank God that didn't get on a record.
RELIX: Have you been playing live or with other people aside from this Quicksilver thing?
FREIBERG: Well, an odd thing here or there, but mostly studio stuff. I did some soundtrack stuff with Mickey Hart of the Dead, mostly that and working on stuff here in the studio.
RELIX: How did you get back to playing with Gary Duncan again as part of Quicksilver? I know you are on the last album, Peace By Piece.
FREIBERG: Well, not very much on Peace By Piece, just a little bit of background vocals is all I did there. I don't know really. I knew he was working here, and I hadn't been by here much because I was busy working with the Starship. I just came by and started helping out, and gradually I kept getting into more and more and now it is about all I do. Plus my own stuff - I have been into doing a lot of classical stuff on my own.
RELIX: Are there any other musicians involved in this current incarnation of Quicksilver?
FREIBERG: Yes. Michael Lewis, who after I left, was actually Quicksilver's keyboardist. He's a good man. I really enjoy working with him.
RELIX: What about on drums?
FREIBERG: Our drummer is... Mr. Computer. What we do is play them either off of a drum pad or a keyboard. So, it is not as if it would be a programmed drum machine. You know all the parts have actually been played. You have good control over it. It sounds like a drummer, better than most of the ones I have ever played with. It never loses time unless you want it to.
RELIX: Do you have any contact with the other ex-members of Quicksilver?
FREIBERG: Occasionally. I don't see John or Greg very often.
RELIX: What about Dino? Is he still involved in music?
FREIBERG: Dino bops by once in a while. He says he is, but I haven't heard him doing anything. I guess he is still writing stuff, trying to get it together. Who isn't?
RELIX: Do you ever listen to old Quicksilver stuff now, and if so how do you feel about it?
FREIBERG: I hardly ever listen to it. Actually the CD's are out.
RELIX: Well, that was kind of where I was leading.
FREIBERG: I have them, but I haven't managed to listen to them yet. I haven't heard too many complaints, but I don't suppose Capitol spent a lot of time on them.
At this point the conversation switches to Gary Duncan. I started off by telling Gary that I liked the Peace by Piece album but thought that it was difficult to find.
DUNCAN: it was pretty hard to find. It had its moments. The new one is better, much better. We are real proud of what we've got now.
RELIX: I thought you got a rough deal with Capitol regarding Peace by Piece. There was no real promotional push behind the album.
DUNCAN: Well, I don't think that was the case. I think it was internal changes at the label and a bunch of acts, us included, got the promotion pulled right at that time, and it all just happened overnight. One day they were promoting it and the next day they weren't promoting it at all. I don't know the reason.
RELIX: Do you want to give us some idea what direction the band is moving in these days? Is it going to be similar to Peace by Piece or an extension of that sound?
DUNCAN: It's a lot different than Peace by Piece. You'd really have to hear it. It's hard to describe what the difference is. It's just the amount of change we have gone through since that was recorded. In fact, that album was recorded and finished in 1984. And in the last five years the songwriting has gotten better. And since it isn't such a struggle to make the recordings as it was five years ago, everything is easier, and when it is easier, it's usually easier for people to listen to. I like it a lot better, but that's really up to the people who listen to it. That album [Peace by Piece] was kind of rough in a lot of places.
RELIX: I enjoyed it, but a lot of Quicksilver fans I talked to didn't like it. I think people are always expecting Quicksilver circa Happy Trails, but you have to move with the times.
DUNCAN: Yeah, that was 20 years ago. I'd hate to be doing the same thing now that I was doing 20 years ago. You know, we are real happy now recording and things are going real well at this point. We are just waiting to see what label we are going to be on.
RELIX: Why don't you tell what you've been doing since the demise of Quicksilver in the late 70's?
DUNCAN: Well, actually I never left. What happened was we toured up until '78 or '79, but because we didn't have an album out it was pretty poor pickings at that point and it became real obvious that if we didn't have some kind of product out we weren't going to make any money playing. So, for about 18 months I worked on the docks in San Francisco, and I wrote music and got into building a studio. I got some backers and borrowed some money and built this [24 track] recording studio because it was actually cheaper to build the studio than it was trying to get into a good studio and spending a lot of money trying to make a record.
RELIX: So, really what you were saying is that Quicksilver basically just carried on from the Solid Silver thing?
DUNCAN: Well, basically, but there was a period of time when we didn't have any product out and we weren't touring, but that happens with a lot of bands.
RELIX: Was it a question of that you just didn't have the material to record or was it that your label (Capitol) was reluctant to record you?
DUNCAN: Well, it wasn't that we didn't have the material. It was basically the album we did in '75, Solid Silver - and then we did well on the road in '76, '77 and '78, but by 1979 the money was pretty bad because we didn't have any product out. It wasn't that we didn't have material, we just needed to take some time to regroup. What we had to do was go back into the studio and make a good sounding record, because you just couldn't sell Quicksilver on their past merits at that point. It had to be something that was commercial and sellable. But when you are on the road all the time working you don't spend any time in the studio and you become a live group. It's hard to record a band that's always used to playing live. It's a different sort of regiment.
RELIX: So how did the Peace by Piece album come about?
DUNCAN: Well, we had the studio and started recording, and basically we record everything that we write, or everything that we like, there's a few tunes that we cover just because we like the songs. But we record everything we like and out of that when it's time to release an album we'll just pick through it and find the stuff that is best. We have a lot of stuff left over that didn't go on that album. Now we have over 20 tunes in the can that are finished and out of those 20 we will take whatever it takes to put another album together, and we just continue to record constantly what we write.
RELIX: Is there any chance of any gigs coming up?
DUNCAN: Well, it depends basically on how this album does. When the album is out and it's being promoted and it's getting some airplay then we can put together a tour. We never got to tour Europe before and that would be great. We'd like to tour Australia and Japan and of course the United States. That's what we plan on doing, but we are going to wait until we have the record out before we do that.
RELIX: Have you recorded any other acts at your studio?
DUNCAN: There's probably nobody that you have ever heard of. A lot of local people have recorded here and we have produced a lot of projects for local bands.
RELIX: So, I guess that helps pay the rent!
DUNCAN: Yeah, it keeps food on the table, and we've got to do that besides record. In fact, it's one of the reasons that sometimes it gets hard, but we have managed to do it this long.
RELIX: How do you feel looking back at the old Quicksilver stuff - the music that is?
DUNCAN: It is real hard to be objective about your old recordings. There's only a few of those tracks out of all those albums we recorded, probably five that I can really listen to and say that's neat. I really like that. The rest you know, everyone was prone in those days to play as long as possible and as loud as possible and try to get it on tape, and the quality isn't all that good. The vocals aren't as good as they are now because we were younger and inexperienced, but all in all for the records that came out at that time they were about equal to the rest. A lot of people like those old albums and I'm glad. I have the CD's of the first album and Happy Trails but I haven't had a chance to listen to them yet. I don't have a CD player at home, only in the studio.
RELIX: At one point in 1969 you left Quicksilver with Dino Valenti and formed a band called the Outlaws.
DUNCAN: I left the group in '69 because I had to stop for a while. I was fried and me and Dino did a lot of things in 1969. We rode motorcycles, we went around the country and we did have a group for about a month called the Outlaws and we played one gig. I don't even remember who was in it besides him and I. It was a short lived thing. We just threw together a band so we could play this date and we had to have a name for it, so that's what we called it. We never recorded anything.
RELIX: Line Records released a 12" EP of the Brogues (a pre-Quicksilver group circa '64-5).
DUNCAN: Yes. That was a band that Greg Elmore and I had for about a year and a half before we moved to San Francisco. We played dances in central California. In those days there was a lot of money to be made doing that sort of thing. We made two records. One was on Twilight ("But Now I Find' backed with "Someday") and then we cut "Miracle Worker" and some other tune. It was on Challenge Records. I heard it and I'm not ashamed of it. Originally they (Challenge) were promoting "Miracle Worker" and the label had two major acts. The other was a group called... Oh, I can't remember it. They had a hit called "Lies."
RELIX: The Knickerbockers.
DUNCAN: Yeah, the Knickerbockers was the other group and what I think happened was they released those two records and the Knickerbockers started to sell and so they just promoted them and not us, but that's the way it goes.
RELIX: Getting back to the present. Do you have any idea when we can expect to see something on record from you?
DUNCAN: By the fall, unless the label decides they want to hold up the release until next spring, which I hope they don't do, because I'd like to have this stuff out as I have a whole bunch more stuff I want to do.
RELIX: Do you actually have a line on a label?
DUNCAN: Well, we have talked to most of the major labels and we've got interest from several and at this point we are just resubmitting some tunes and deciding which ones we are going to use. It is a matter of business. It's like selling anything else. You take offers and weigh them against the others, and I try myself to stay out of that part as much as I can because it's real non-musical. This one is definitely going to be better than the last album.
Relix, June 1989, Vol. 16 No. 3