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Dinosaur Tracks?

Return of the Fossil Poets

Dec. 8, 2008
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Gary Tanin goes back a long way in Milwaukee music. He started recording with 1960s garage bands and by the early ’70s was already ahead of the pack by releasing carefully crafted DIY albums on his own label. As the ’90s began he was collaborating with musicians from half the world away, producing CDs long distance by uploading tracks. In 2006 Robert Fripp’s Inner Knot label released Tanin’s production for one-time Utopia keyboardist Roger Powell, Fossil Poets. Tanin co-wrote most of the songs with Powell and Milwaukee’s Greg Koch, who is heard on guitar. Tanin worked with Powell on a follow-up disc, a lovely album of impressionistic etudes for piano tentatively titled Blue Note Ridge. It will be released digitally at the end of the year and on CD in 2009.

Where did the name Fossil Poets come from?

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that language is “fossilized poetry.” The connection with him was totally by accident! We were three-quarters finished with the album and looking for a title, going back and forth with names. I even found a name-generator on the Internet, but nothing worked.

We played around with the idea of fossils—we’re all older musicians! And music is poetry in a broad sense. I came up with the title and a week later Roger found the Emerson essay in which he called language “fossilized poetry.” The name has a prog-rock ring to it.

Do you consider Fossil Poets to be prog rock?

We didn’t target it as prog, jazz or rock. We just made it. There’s a lot of freedom there—a lot of anticipation about the end result when you don’t start with a narrow label.

What’s amazing is the breadth of acceptance for Fossil Poets, despite it being hard to classify. It speaks highly to Roger’s sensibilities. We were reviewed in 100 magazines and Web sites, including Vintage Guitar, Keyboard, Future World—magazines in the U.S., Britain, Finland and Italy. Roger was never in Down Beat before. And they gave the record three stars!

Roger Powell is working for Apple these days and hasn’t been musically active in years. His previous solo album was released in the ’70s. Were there any challenges in promoting Fossil Poets?

People are willing to look at a person who had a career. As a recording artist, you have a bigger hump to get over if people never heard of you before.

Tell me about your new project with Powell, Blue Note Ridge?

I spent four days with him in San Francisco this summer. All of the music started out as acoustic piano pieces recorded on new technology that gives the instrument amazing depth. We recorded six to eight tracks. Most of the work comes in preparing for when the opportunity happens. It’s like whittling away with a penknife—the hand follows the direction of the grain that’s already there and you don’t argue with that direction. You just follow the flow. The things I’m happiest about are when I stop being in the way and capture what’s happening.

What other work have you been doing lately?

I’m mastering soundtrack library music for movie trailers—it’s for a Hollywood company called PostHaste Music. [Famed producer] Tony Visconti referred a band to me called The Tallboys of Kentucky. I did post-production and mastering for their album. I was associate producer on a pair of Daryl Stuermer CDs, Rewired and Go. I’ve been working since October on Sammy Llanas’ first project since his work with T-Bone Burnett—a group of introspective, acoustically oriented songs. I’m also producing an EP for Ric Justus, a local singer/songwriter who I claim has a resemblance musically to Harry Nilsson.

Gary Tanin | Photo by Don Rask


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