Sept. 1991 interview
conducted by Brannon Wiles
Tell me a little about your musical background: your training,
It's funny having started an a cappella group that I find myself
in the midst of all this a cappella mania. Here's an entire newsletter
devoted to a cappella, and it's like, "Gee, I never even
thought about a cappella music before." I just started the
group as a whim, and it's kind of funny -- my background was not
in voice at all.
My first musical inspiration was probably the Beatles -- when
I was 8, they came on the Ed Sullivan show -- the same can probably
be said for millions of young Americans, but it affected me as
well. I took some piano lessons for a year and then quit, because
I didn't sound like the Beatles. Later on, when I was about 15
or 16, I picked up the guitar and taught myself guitar and piano
(figured out from the guitar). Then my mother gave me piano lessons
for my 17th birthday, and that was heavenly. I practiced for like
4 hours a day. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, really, but
I thought maybe if I could major in music, that would be great.
So, I worked really hard all summer and got into the music department
here at Berkeley, and ended up studying music for 5 years.
I taught myself, I was teaching myself rock and folk, but studying
music here at Berkeley was strictly classical. So I didn't really
know what was happening in the music world -- for all I knew,
it was just the Bee Gees and nothing else.
During school, I music-directed some shows for theatre groups
and found myself arranging and writing music, and I continued
after college. A couple years after I graduated ['79], I was writing
music and singing telegrams, and it was when the singing telegram
company -- that's where I met Matthew -- went out of business
that the Bobs were formed.
There was an a cappella group here in San Francisco called the
Baltimores which are no longer, but at the time they put out a
couple of singles, I think. I just loved what they were doing,
and I said, "I'd love to do that." I got together with
Matthew, found Richard through an ad in the paper, and then the
Bobs got launched.
CAN: When exactly did you start, and how
long was it before it became full-time?
We started in 1981, and it was a great ride. Richard had a good
background in music. Where I was used to cheesy little recording
studios, Richard was an engineer at a very fine studio in San
Francisco. The Bobs got a pretty fast break that way -- we got
some good recordings done and they got on some radio stations
that would play demos of local groups. It wasn't all computerized
back then. We got some notoriety by being able to get some stuff
done in the studio.
Janie joined us in '82, after about a year. Writing music with
just three parts is all right, but it's a little difficult. You'd
love to put a seventh on a chord sometimes, you know -- or take
a breath -- and four is great. Then we added Joe a few years ago,
and five is all right, but sometimes it gets a little mushy if
you overuse the voices. Overall, I would say that five voices
is even better than four but you have to arrange carefully. With
four there's always clarity, but five can sound a little "Swingly-Singery
... Gene Puerlingy ... Hi-Losy ..." Take 6 sometimes borders
on sounding like that, but they're such incredible singers, I
If you didn't have any real a cappella background, how did you
find such a distinct style? What made you choose your direction?
GM: The Baltimores were headed in a similar direction [away from
traditional doo-wop and barbershop] although they stayed more
in a pop vein. Where Richard and I got off as arrangers from the
very beginning was to try and "push the envelope" as
they say. We would say, "Can we do heavy metal? Can we do
punk?" I suppose the judges are still out on that, but that's
okay, we were having fun with it.
Though I was a composer, I really hadn't written any songs, and
Richard hadn't either. We essentially taught each other how to
write songs. Virtually every Bobs song was a collaboration. The
genesis of the group was saying, "Can we do Frank Zappa?"
After awhile, it was, "Can we write our own songs? Let's
see." "Art for Art's Sake" was one of the first
ones, as was "Cowboy Lips."
CAN: What are your favorite songs, that you
either wrote or just arranged?
GM: I always loved singing "Through the Wall." There's
a depth of emotion to it that not all of our other songs, at least
the ones I got to sing lead on, had. Every time I sang it, I could
find something to really hook into and really feel deeply, and
I like that. Also, we sang "Psycho Killer" at virtually
every show, and it never got old for me. It's a beautiful song
in lots of ways. We did it in kind of a funny way, but overall,
the words of the song just really describe that feeling of being
on edge. [To tape recorder:] I'm not psychotic!
CAN: What were some of the challenges in
the early days of a pioneering a cappella group?
GM: Probably finding a slot for ourselves. Our agent, Scott O'Malley,
was very helpful to our career, I feel, in that we were a hard
act to book. A cappella has achieved a certain stature recently,
with the [Spike Lee] special on TV, but when we were doing this
-- hey, Bobby McFerrin hadn't even started doing a cappella; he
was still singing with the band. I mean, the only people out there
were the Persuasions -- the Nylons hadn't even started yet.
We're also a little bit funny, so we ended up doing lots of comedy
gigs. Finding the right slot for us wasn't easy. Our agent had
lots of patience. He put us in Folk festivals, Jazz festivals,
anywhere we could fit, and lots of times we did. We opened for
Robin Williams on tour, and it worked. It was hard -- 7,000 people
that pay good money to see Robin Williams don't want to see anything
else. I'd say we did pretty well.
CAN: You also opened for Billy Crystal, didn't
GM: That was only for a couple of nights, so we didn't get to
know him that well. The interesting thing about that was that
we did it at a casino in South Tahoe, and singing in a casino
is an experience. Everyone's drunk, and they don't care for anything
too... fine, shall we say? In fact, we opened our first set (there
were two shows a night) with the kind of stuff we did with Robin
on tour -- "Banana Love" and really hit-'em-over-the-head
kind of stuff -- "Psycho Killer" -- and Robin Williams'
audiences really seemed to like that. But here, in this setting,
people just sort of looked at us with drunken, uncomprehending
Then Billy Crystal comes on, and his show was full of, like, farting
jokes and all kinds of stuff. They loved it, `cause he knew the
audience he was playing for. He kept on repeating the same farting
noise, and they would roll in the aisles. And we had the entertainment
director from Harrah's come down and say, "You're a talented,
talented young man, but do you have any love songs or something?"
So we dropped "Psycho Killer" quick and some other things
and played it down the middle as far as we could.
CAN: All in all, would you call the Bobs
successful, either by your standards and expectations or the music
GM: Yes, definitely. In terms of my expectations, I think in the
back of my mind I had the fantasy of the Beatles. As a young kid,
you look at "A Hard Day's Night," it looks like it's
the most fun thing in the world. Basically, I haven't had my jacket
torn off of me by anybody, but I know what it is to tour now.
I know what it is to feel a crowd responding just to your music
-- it's great. Also, it's hard to tour, and it's like, "Okay,
so I lived the life -- that's good." I might go back and
live it again; I don't know. Life on the road is hard. I can see
why the Beatles split up when they did. How any group makes it
beyond a certain point is due to magic because you're talking
about a complex relationship.
CAN: If you could go back, would you do anything
differently as far as the group is concerned?
GM: No, it seems to have worked out pretty well. I mean, if I
were to start another group now, I might put it in writing what
we each expected and wanted out of the whole thing and make sure
it's clear up front, because the fuzziness leads to a lot of resentment
on everybody's part. You can never make it all totally clear,
but I'd make an attempt at it, at least. On the other hand, you've
just got to trust that things might work out.
CAN: I think our readers would like to know
some of your reasons for leaving the Bobs last December, if you'd
care to comment on that.
GM: Basically, I would say that I had many reasons, sort of like
the stars lining up and suddenly the forces are all there. It
is falling in love with someone, who I'm now married to. We've
been living together the last four years. Spending time away on
the road for the first two years of touring with the Bobs was
no problem. When there's someone at home that you miss, you don't
like going out as much.
I'd also kind of had my fill of the a cappella format. I still
love it, but in terms of doing something creative, the songwriting
had kind of stopped a couple years back. To get it going, it was
kind of like an act of will as opposed to an act of joy, and for
my own life I just wanted more joy in it. And it was six months
away from home out of every year. I love performing and those
two hours [on stage] were great, but after that, it's like, "Where's
the newness? Where's the new excitement?" I felt pretty satisfied
about all the success and was just looking for something else.
I couldn't have told you before I quit what I wanted to do, but
as the year turned and I was no longer touring with the group,
all kinds of things opened up. I'm writing a film score and getting
some jobs as a composer, which feels real good. I'm doing some
solo concerts, some a cappella and some where I play piano, and
it's a pleasure to play piano again -- I haven't done that in
years! I'm starting to teach myself guitar [again] and using that
in concerts, and it's like, "Hey -- instruments are fun!"
Also, the Bobs had become a comedy group, and I really wanted
to write some more personal, emotional songs. I tried to do that
with the group, and it was really hard, because the audience expected
it. The group expected comedy too -- it was just a real hard mold
to break. I didn't have the courage or the willpower to force
it open, and I wasn't sure it needed to be. I just wasn't sure
what I wanted either. It's only having been by myself now that
the songs are just coming out of me. Some of them are still funny,
`cause I'm a funny guy, I think. But when I want to write a song
about a relationship or my dead grandmother, there's room for
me to write it and perform it, and you know, it feels really good.
I suggested touring less -- there were all sorts of compromises
suggested. In fact, Joe joined the group as a result of compromise.
We said, "Maybe if we add another member it will change things."
And it did change things -- a lot for the better, but it didn't
change things enough for me personally to where I felt comfortable
staying still. I just wanted to be home so bad. In fact, I still
resent traveling. Here it is eight months later -- I've got a
honeymoon coming up in November that I'm starting to want to go
on now. I've had enough of it. Don't put me in an airport, PLEASE!
CAN: Tell me about the Bobs' most recent
album. It was released several months ago, right?
GM: Yes, but it was recorded a couple of years ago. In fact, it
was while we were auditioning people for our new group. That's
why you'll find Joe on some of the cuts and Maureen Scott, who's
a wonderful singer, on a few as well.
CAN: Was she part of the group at that time?
GM: No, we were just busy in the studio and said, "Hey, we've
auditioned a bunch of different singers over the last 6 months.
Why don't we try some of them out in the studio and see how it
works?" We liked working with Joe, and we liked working with
Maureen on a couple of the cuts too. Then, according to the votes
cast, it was Joe who was next to join the group.
CAN: Last January I heard the Bobs in North
Carolina, and there was a fifth member, Roger Bob. Several of
the CAN staff heard the Bobs this month in San Francisco, and
Roger was nowhere to be found. What's the story there?
GM: I'm not too sure what went on. He was one of the first people
we auditioned down in L.A. [when Joe joined the group]. He's a
wonderful, witty songwriter and a good singer. I really liked
working with him, but he has a good career in Los Angeles too,
as a jingle singer and stuff. So, it was problematic about him
joining the group, but when I finally left at the end of last
year, they worked on maybe integrating him into the group. Apparently,
the blend wasn't quite right, and I think he could've been a little
afraid of the touring schedule as well. So, they tried him and
it didn't work out. I think they're just going on with four now.
I'm not really sure.
CAN: Do you have any other advice for people
interested in starting a new a cappella group?
GM: Try arranging your own stuff. Who knows what kind of stuff
is bubbling inside each of us? It might be something you're not
cut out for. Maybe you try a few, and it just gives you headaches
-- that's fine, but give it try. Don't let the editor get in your
way: everyone has a little internal editor that says, "Oh,
that's too corny" or "Oh, that's too dissonant."
NO -- do it, do it, do it. Just go for it... grab a handful of
it... If it doesn't work, what have you lost? If you just go with
the same old arrangements, you can have some fun too, but just
dig in with both hands, get dirty, and see how much fun you can
have with it. Not everyone has the will to do that -- sometimes
it's just nice to have a nice hobby. But, if you want to start
a group, why not go all the way?
CAN: Let's talk a little bit about the art
form of a cappella itself. Why the a cappella format?
GM: It's really intriguing to try limit your options and then
work within that. Strip it down to three voices or four, and then
it's really exciting. When you have a whole orchestra or synthesizer
at your disposal, you can't seem to make up your mind between
the timpani and the flute. But if all you've got is just four
human voices, then you know what you're going to do with them,
and you stretch them. You make them do things, you really explore
them, and that's exciting. It's why the string quartet for classical
composers was so incredibly engrossing. It's like this concentrated
essence. You're not talking about a whole orchestra, but just
these four instruments and can you make it work?
The limiting factor is definitely exciting. And the purity of
the sound. And the portability of it. You can do it anywhere.
It's, like, almost totally organic, and that's exciting.
CAN: What makes a song work a cappella? What's
the key to a good arrangement?
GM: It differs from song to song. I think of "I Hate the
Beach Boys" from our repertoire. I love that song; it's just
really pretty. It's got no rhythm -- it's almost like a madrigal
in a sense, and it succeeds on that scale. It would never be a
hit though. What makes, like, Take 6 happen is their underlying
beat, the repetitive nature of the beat, even though their chords
are complex on top. The Nylons? Well, they've got drums in there
-- that's cheating! But if you can set up some kind of a beat.
That was always exciting too. We'd say, "Can we pull off
a funk song with 4 voices? Can we set up something that's really
funky?" Sometimes its easy. You just keep those back-beat
handclaps going and anything you put down is going to sound great.
But it's not always that simple. You're looking for a good bass
line, or.... I suppose it's the same rules that apply to any good
song. If you're looking at a Gershwin thing, well, it's that melody
that works. You could play it on a solo piano, you could play
it in an orchestra -- it's just a beautiful melody. What makes
Tower of Power work? It's that rhythm. Boppity boppity bah. Can
you sing a Tower of Power song to yourself in the shower? Well,
... kind of, but basically it's that rhythm. The same rules apply,
but basically those rules depend on what kind of song you're trying
to get across.
One thing I'm finding in writing my own songs now, apart from
the Bobs, is the use of the chorus in a pop song -- the repetition
of words that I used to think was boring. In the Bobs you'll find
that each verse is different, trying to keep going and tell a
story. But I'm really digging how a pop song can say nothing but
"I love you" and the second line is "I love you,
baby" and the third line is "I love you." If it's
done with emotion, the beat's right, and there's a little bit
of melody, it could be a fantastic song.
Words and the judicial use of them are really important in getting
a good arrangement going. Like, a good challenge would be to do
... I don't know ... "Let's Do It" -- a Cole Porter
song. [He sings:] "Birds do it, bees do it. Even educated
fleas..." Take that and it's got a million verses. You can
do 10 minutes worth of that song just going verse to verse, and
they're great verses. But could you do a 3-minute arrangement
of it with just the one verse and recycling the words around.
That's a great idea. [To tape recorder:] Hey, give it a try! It
might end up just being an intellectual exercise, but maybe you
can make it mean something. Basically you're talking about a plea.
Someone's begging, "Please let's do it!" You could work
From my current standpoint, that's really excited me -- the structure
of just a song, let alone the arrangement. I'm thinking of "Helter
Skelter" when we first started arranging. We kind of knew
we couldn't make it really heavy metal, so what else could we
do to make it grating? Not unpleasantly so, but to really punch
the buttons underneath your skin and make you go, "Oooo --
this is weird. Where's the downbeat?" and "That's a
strange note." That was a way to approach it. We knew that
the essence of the song was unsettling. So, we didn't use loud
guitars and a raucous vocal and an intense beat to make it unsettling,
but other aspects. The choice of a chord and the voicing of the
chord. A shifting meter that just doesn't let you settle down.
That would be true of choosing any song, I guess. If you wanted
to do a Carpenters' song, say. It's got kind of a warmth, maybe
a soupy warmth, and you want to make sure that's in your arrangement
somewhere. Or, to intentionally cut across that and instead of
crooning, "Why do birds suddenly appear?" you could
go for a punk version of it. Could be fun! But to realize what
the essence is so you know where you're going from there.
CAN: Jumping to a completely different topic,
as a professional group, what kind of contact did the Bobs have
with other professional singing groups?
GM: We did a show with the Nylons once. They were nice, but we
didn't end up going out for beers afterwards and singing the house
down. There was a club in Denver called Acapella's and they had
a different local a cappella group every night. We'd always stop
in after we did a show at a theatre somewhere in Denver and sit
in or something, so that kind of thing is fun. We did a few shows
with Bobby McFerrin, but we never quite made a link with anyone
I guess the Bobs were somewhat insular in that way, `cause Richard
and I are trained musicians and could improvise some. But Janie
and Matthew don't have the training, so it's not so easy to just
pick up something new. Also, we do some covers, but if we do,
they're pretty weird. It's not like we just get together with
the Persuasions and [they] say, "Let's do that old Philadelphia
song, `My Baby'" [And we say] "We don't know it ...we
know `Helter Skelter.'"
CAN: In closing, perhaps you'd like to tell
our readers a little bit about what the future holds for Gunnar
Madsen. Do you have some hopes for where your career is headed
GM: I've been taking an acting class recently that has been really
good. I always loved performing anyway, but did it from an instinctual
basis. I wanted to learn more of the tools. When I had a great
night, that was wonderful, but I had no idea how to recapture
that. I'm doing lots of auditions, and have done some commercials
[for a computer he couldn't name at this point]. I'm not sure
I want to be just a stage actor, but it's really helping me in
my solo performing. One would think that I'd feel totally comfortable
on stage after singing with the Bobs for 10 years, but it's so
different to have a whole group you can just sit back on. So,
I'm learning a whole lot each time I step across the stage. I
guess I've been doing about one concert a month this year, and
I'm really liking the freedom that's in it. It's really a kick
to take the audience from funny, funny songs to a really sad or
angry one -- all over the emotional map. I can go there myself
and take the audience with me.
My dream is to have a demo-quality tape out just to put some good
time into arranging and recording the songs. I like being by myself,
and I'd like to get that project done and see where it goes from
there in the solo singing career. That seems to be the core of
my being right now -- writing songs and singing them. I don't
know, we'll see what happens.