Dreamies interview with Bill Holt
Bill Holt is truly an amazing artist with a great vision. He created an album back in 1973 at home and it contains some of the very avant-garde moves. He accomplished something really unique. Artists like Brian Eno and Kraftwerk had made similar moves three years later and with far less profesional gear. The album itself paints pictures of America back in the 60’s where the “Cold War” was in its hights.
Thanks for taking your time Bill, to talk about your project from the 70’s. Tell me about the beginning of this project. Who was behind it and what was your intention or should I say concept? I read, you had intended to redefine people’s notions of “pop music.”
Thanks for your interest in my 1974 Dreamies album. It’s so great we now get some royalties from iTunes and other purchase sites. Not much but it sure helps.
I can tell you we appreciate each and every person who buys my music.
That first album was inspired by my love for music and world affairs, politics. Between 1960 and 1974 music and politics radically changed. We went from innocent do-wop rock and roll to dark psychedelic music. In politics America went from the straight laced to the Age Of Aquarius, quarts of beer to pot smoking. It might all seem old now, but at the time it really was a great American Cultural Revolution. I felt compelled to somehow tell the story, capture what was happening. The concept, my intention with Dreamies Program Ten and Program Eleven, was to record for posterity a sense of those times. Certainly not a documentary, more a feel for the times. Political propaganda, time capsule all rolled into one for posterity.
What did you do before this project?
I worked for 3M Company in Philadelphia as a sales and marketing junior executive in a three piece suit. That was in the 1960’s. If you know the TV show Mad Men, that was me.
How did you came to an idea to start musical collage and what would you say had a great impact on you; influences?
My instinct was to be original. I was a big fan of original art. From Picasso to Bob Dylan to the Beatles. I wanted to do on a sound recording what René Magritte did on canvas. A lot of what influenced me I read about, but never really listened to. I read about avante composer John Cage. I read about concepts like musique concrète. Strawberry Fields had music playing backwards. I was amazed by the no holds barred Revolution Number 9. The track name Dreamies Program Ten is homage to Revolution Number 9. I felt that’s where my talent was. Not so much a virtuoso musician or great singer, however I felt very confident about originality. I trusted my love love for composition and producing would carry the day even though I had little experience as a musician and no experience with a keyboard.
The whole album reflects dreams of a young man caught in the middle of the Cold War. Would you like to tell us more about this story you had in mind?
The Dustin Hoffman movie the Graduate pretty much sums up my life in the early 1960’s, except for the Mrs. Robinson part. A young man raised in a seemingly one dimensional world. Catholic school with a life pretty much pre-packaged. Follow the rules, play ball, get a job, a car payment a mortgage, that was that. A life that was very much like a frozen dinner, all prepared for you by others. Then, out of the blue that orderly world is shattered.
The shattering started with the assassination of President Kennedy. A shock to the Nation even greater than 9/11. Totally surreal unimaginable. The innocent world of Bill Haley and Comets started to unravel pretty fast after JFK was killed. Then the Vietnam War. I got news that my friend from high school ended up 10,000 miles from our picture perfect suburban home town carrying a machine gun in some Godforsaken jungle where he ends up getting stabbed to death by a bayonet. While I was back home learning how to sell office equipment for 3M, wondering why I was here safe and he was there dead in the jungle.
Music, as I mentioned, changed just as radically. One day I was listening to the Beatles saying I Want To Hold Your Hand, the next day it was Buffalo Springfield with that eerie message “something’s happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear”. Sgt. Pepper, Lucy In The Sky. A lot different than Little Anthony singing Why Do Fools Fall In Love. It was not just music changing. People were changing. I felt compelled to tell the story, try at least to capture the essence of what was happening here.
One thing that amazes me is, that you used so many random pieces, but it seems that are all somehow connected. How did you choose these pieces and from where?
The centerpiece of Program Ten is the excerpt from President Kennedy’s January 1961 inaugural address. The words – we are the heirs of a great revolution . . . the rights of man come not from the generosity of the State but from the hand of God”. Back in the day, before communism died, it was a real, an actual threat. The Soviet Union and The USA each with tons of hydrogen bombs confronting each other. The battle between our ancestors dream and Marxism was very real to me and yet to be settled. It was all very stirring for me. Those soundbites, the Beatles, JFK, Walter Cronkite are all the voices of the times. I find it laughable today to here people throwing around the words Marxism communism accusing President Obama of being “marxist”. Sounds so stupid to me. That war was fought and won last century.
When you hear “we interrupt this program to bring you a special news bulletin” – that was happening for real all the time. We were on the edge of our seats a lot. We interrupt to tell you the President was shot to death. We interrupt to tell you Martin Luther was shot to death. We interrupt to tell you the Soviet Union has atomic missiles in Cuba aimed at Washington DC and the world might be coming to an end soon.
So yes, all those sound bites I put in Dreamies are all carefully chosen. There’s stuff in there most listeners probably don’t recognize. The jury verdict for Jack Ruby, the guy who shot Lee Harvey Oswald. Combat sounds from Vietnam. President Lyndon Johnson asking for God’s help after Kennedy was assassinated. I got most of them from meticulously recording long stretches of TV news over the years, I recorded sounds from the night, crickets and breaking glass and popcorn popping. A pot on the stove with popcorn popping, me standing by with a mic. Far out. Geez. It sounds sort of bizarre now. But I can tell you at the time I absolutely thought I knew precisely what I was doing. Not sure why. was totally driven. I thought not enough of my piers, young folks at the time, real hippies (I was kind of a fake hippie more a corporate escapee than a genuine flower child) – it did not think people really understood what the fight against communism was about. I wanted even somebody getting stoned listening to Dreamies to get that subliminal message out – we being the heirs of a great revolution. Remember, back then communism was real. There was a bellicose USSR saying they would bury us. Today it’s dead, more an intellectual concept. Back then it was very real.
But mainly making Dreamies was great happy fun, interupted only by house parties with a great group of happy young friends. Chosing sound bites, where to put them, how much to reveal them, was great fun for me as a newly minted composer. The boxing match you might hear in the beginning of Program Ten progresses as the side goes along. At the very end, there’s the knockout. I can tell you it was all very carefully constructed. Looking back I ofter wonder – how’d I do that?
Where did you record this album and what gear did you use?
I recorded Dreamies Program Ten and Program Eleven in the basement of my home in Claymont, Delaware. I used an Ovation acoustic guitar, I saw Glen Campbell playing one on TV, a brand new to the world of music – synthesizer, a Moog Sonic Six. In 1974 nobody even knew how to pronounce that word. I read for several years about the new “synthesizer”. When I went to buy my Sonic Six I started talking to the guy at the music store and got tongue tied – realized I had never actually uttered the word Synentheissizer. I learned to love that Sonic Six. Twisting those knobs to make new music. Loved it.
I had two good tape recorders. A TEAC 3440 four track and a Revox two track. I heard the Beatles used a four track for Sgt. Pepper, so I figured I was set. I had an array of mixers, a first generation drum machine I rigged up, and some splicing gear to cut the tape and edit with the old slice and glue tape together method. I can tell you it was a labor of love but a lot of labor still.
Was it recorded at home or in some studio?
Who backed you up for this project?
Hmmm. I better not forget anyone, but I believe the answer is nobody. This was a one man project from start to finish. My loving wife Carole was behind me all the way, even though Dreamies caused us to slowly slip from up and coming upwardly mobile middle class corporate, to starving artist with past due bills and no job.
You accomplish something really unique. Artists like Brian Eno and Kraftwerk had made similar moves three years later. How did you manage to produce this sounds using just amateur recording equipment?
I was using consumer, maybe semi-pro gear. The biggest hurdle to overcome was “noise”. Not sure if people even relate to that problem in the digital age. But with tape, if you fill up four tracks, then record the four out to a two track, then you put that two track mixdown back onto two of the four tracks . . . well by the time you get ready to go with two new tracks, the sound was badly degraded with hiss and white noise. The professional studios used very expensive Dolby noise reduction to solve that. Something I could not afford. I was always nerdy so the mechanics of rigging up the gear and engineering around problems was fun for me. I must say, even today if I hear Dreamies, I sometimes I wonder how I managed to do it. Mainly like so many other things. Lots of time. Attention to detail. A love for what you are doing. Tons of hard work. Next thing you know you made something good. Looking back is was a small miracle.
You were searching for a label, but you had difficulties to find one, which is not odd, because of the music. Then you released the album on your own private label called Stone Theatre. Tell me about this label and where and how many copies did you get pressed?
I don’t recall searching for a label. I was so determined to do this on my own. I learned good business skills from ten years at 3M in Philadelphia. Learned a lot about how different businesses work. From meat packing on Callowhill Street near the river, to Discmakers, an old school vinyl record pressing factory down in the industrial section with big vats of hot plastic turned in records. I created the original 1974 label “Stone Theatre” . That’s now Wilmington Studios. Stone Theatre of course was a typical hippy of the times name. Seems a bit overt now. The initial pressing was 2000. At Discmakers I had the good fortune of meeting the very savvy Ballen brothers. Morris and Larry were around my age. They were taking that record pressing business over from their dad. Discmakers was big then, even bigger today. They pressed the Philly sound back in the day. Morris and Larry took my under their wing made sure I had a distributor, got me interviews, play on local progressive stations. They were totally connected, and that helped a lot.
How about distribution? I heard some sold through The Rolling Stone magazine…
Dreamies was distributed to record stores in the Philadelphia region, plus I ran little mail order ads in Rolling Stone. I would get orders at my PO Box and mail them out. It was exciting. It was all things wrapped into one. Mainly a wonderful fulfillment as a newly minted artist on a mission, at the same time it satisfied my business side. I wanted to make a living for my family selling my records. Didn’t need much. Maybe sell 500 or so a month, make enough to pay the bills. Morris and Larry were very encouraging. They liked Dreamies. Offered to buy full page ads on the back of Rolling Stone in return for half the profit. I was to self-contained, too stupid to say yes. I should have.
What can you tell me about the cover artwork? What does it represent?
I commissioned a Philadelphia ad agency that did work for 3M to do that cover. I told them I wanted it to look like a far out box of General Mills Total cereal. My parody of commercial music at the time. Funny how people love or hate that cover. I guess you could say the same for Dreamies. Sometimes I look back and think I should have used more conventional cover art. Maybe me brooding in the candlelight over my Sonic Six. Something more human. But it is what it is. At the time I can tell you I thought the cover was absolutely perfect.
Did you get any response from the people who bought the record or perhaps from some critics back in the days?
Critics were very kind. All I heard was good things as I recall. “endless hours of enjoyment”. I would get letters from all over, some from faraway places, Europe, Japan. It was pretty amazing. Not a huge barrel full of letters, but a steady stream of people sending notes thanking me saying what a great listening experience they had. Nothing like being loved to make a person happy. I was happy about what I heard.
Auralgraphic Entertainment by Dreamis. How did you choose this two names?
Auralgraphic Entertainment was a word grouping meant to express sound visions. I got the name Dreamies from an old science fiction short story by Isaac Asimov. Asimov wrote “Dreaming Is A Private Thing” a story in the mid 1950’s about Jesse Weill. Mr. Weill made a living selling manufactured dreams. Dreams he is able to manufacture then transfer them from one person to another. Asimov called those dreams for sale “dreamies”. At the time I titled my album I did not know that. When I discovered the Asimov connection I was kind of floored. Because that’s exactly what I am trying to do.
So if we go again to the album. Two songs titled Program Ten and Program Eleven both long 25+ minutes. Would you like to go a bit in depth about each song. How you crafted and created it…
Just before I left my other life as junior executive at 3M, I wrote the Sunday Morning Song which turned out to be the centerpiece of Program Ten. The song came to me in full in about a half hour. I love that song. It gave me the confidence to go ahead with the project. It’s a seven chord song mainly in minor key. Great to strum starting with A minor.
The album was not storyboard or planned. It was rather a stream of consciousness kind of thing where I worked almost every day and night, totally absorbed. The night was mainly the creative part. Late at night all night. I was around 30 years old, just introduced to marijuana for the first time in my life. I read about Dylan and the Beatles and pot but had never really been there. Up till then I was a clear eyed Catholic school corporate guy. But I knew that all the great artists had a little creative help from their friends. So late at night I would have a nice buzz on, full of energy, down in my studio, with all my new gear, lights down, guitar on my lap, all inspired. The next morning wide eyed sober I would set about the hard labor of editing tape mixing listening making notes. Then late night, nice buzz, listening creating composing playing. That went on for around a year. Finally something told me Dreamies was “done”.
One of the most difficult parts was listening to my own voice. I never got used to hearing my voice, never really liked my voice. Some the the synth buzzing and soundbites are put over my voice as a way of covering up my vocals. A lot of the sounds clicks and clacks are timed at exact intervals. There might be a click or a clack from my homemade drum machine I would insert at exact two minute intervals using a stop watch. The ticking of that stop watch is all through the recording. . Even though a lot of Dreamies may sound chaotic, a lot of thought went into perfecting techniques to give continuity and structure, while at the same time not being too repetitive. Mostly, I loved what I was doing. Loved what I was expressing. Loved telling the story I was telling – even thought it is rather opaque, Dreamies is a story. Maybe that’s why there is some childs nursery rhyme touches in there.
What happened after the release of the album and what were you doing in the late 70’s, 80’s till now?
Well after going from upwardly mobile to downwardly mobile, after I was sure my plan to make a living selling “dreamies” like the man in Isaac Asimov’s story, I had to regroup. I saved enough money to last about two years and had taken some odd jobs, but by 1978 I was behind on my mortgage, a bill collector from Sears came knocking at my door. How humiliating for a former well pampered 3M mad man. So I made a total departure from the hippy musician pot smoking world. Went totally back to the hardworking clear eyed world I spent most of my life in. Thankfully, I was able to get back on my feet in about five years.
Part of making Dreamies was wiring together my studios. I love electronics, figuring things out, wiring things up. So I was able to start my own company installing something brand new in 1978 – home alarm systems. Wiring up houses figuring out how to rig up switches and stuff. Eventually my son worked with me, we ended up with a successful business installing high end home sound systems. alarms, home theatres. I was real fortunate along the way to invent and patent several very successful alarm switches. So I ended up having a successful manufacturing company. God bless America. I am so thankful.
I was so naive in the late 1960’s early 1970’s hippy days. I actually thought being a poor artist with total personal freedom would be some alternative honest happy life. I’ve earned good money, and I’ve been dirt poor. I am convinced earning good money is better. I now mix video art with politics at my website www.dreamies.com.
You released another album called Program Twelve (The End Is Near). What can you tell me about this one?
Program Twelve is the time capsule story of the attack on September 11, 2001 and the paranoia that followed. Strange,but in the mid-1990’s I pretty much did what I did in the mid-1970’s. In 1994, I sold my successful businesses to get back into experimental art. This time new media internet opportunities for art. I built a new studio with all the latest video production sound production computer gear and slowly started learning how to do art all the while the internet was getting set up for broadband enterainment. Took longer than I thought. It’s really been on the last four years video really started to flow. In the meantime there was September 11, 2001. An event as jarring as the assassination of President Kennedy. I’ve been around a long time following the world, and JFK and 9/11 are the two things that shook us the most. 30 years after the first Dreamies I was inspired again. So Program Twelve was my attempt to capture that mindnumbing time in our history. Another time capsule. I get the feeling people who loved Program Ten and Eleven were disappointed by Dreamies Program 12. Kind of anti-climatic I suppose. There will never be another 1974 Dreamies LP. So I will just do what I do. One thing great about being older is I am determined to do what I like doing as an artist, the rest is out of my hands. I loved making Program Twelve as much as the first Dreamies. I do find digital to be almost more work. So many choices. Unlimited tracks to play with. It’s hard to know when enough is enough. I hope 30 years from now The End Is Near Program 12 will be viewed the same way the first album is. A unique time capsule.
What currently occupies your life?
My website www.dreamies.com, where I continue to experiment mixing art and politics. Still trying to find an audience. Eventually I think I will. I have a half complete new Dreamies album. Program Fourteen “Good Fortune”. Has to do with the President Obama days. A pretty interesting time in the USA. The first black president and they don’t believe is birth certificate. How odd. So I do what I do. I am getting more comfortable and confident. Just do what you like doing the rest will happen. I’m sure Rene Magritte, painting on canvas, men in top hats falling from the sky and giant pipes had some doubts but he managed to create a body of work.
Thanks again for taking your time Bill. Would you like to send a message to It’s Psychedelic Baby Magazine readers?
Thank you so much for enjoying Dreamies. All the new fans for my old music is really inspiring. We are very grateful that people appreciate what I did so long ago. And . . . . I spend time trying to chase down illegal downloads. Tens of thousands of copies of Dreamies have been bootlegged. If folks who like Dreamies would purchase Dreamies from iTunes or somewhere legit, my family would sure appreciate that. The less I worry about money, the more I can make Dreamies. Thanks for being in touch.
Interview made by Klemen Breznikar / 2012
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