Alec Palao knows a lot about music. Alec Palao also knows a lot of nice words. It was this killer combination that led to a Grammy nomination for the liner notes he wrote for our Stone Flower comp (which he also produced!). This music archivist, consultant, journalist, and ‘unofficial custodian’ of Sly Stone‘s musical legacy was kind enough to pause the tunes for a moment and answer a few questions for us.
What is your relationship with Sly Stone?
Just that of a fan, aficionado and, along with a few other knowledgeable folks like Neal Austinson, Ed Lanier and Edwin and Arno Konings, an unofficial custodian of his musical legacy. I first met up with Sly back in 2009 when I licensed some material from him on behalf of Ace Records for the compilation Listen To The Voices, spending several days with him in the process. We reconnected in 2013 when LITA needed to license the Stoneflower material for the I’m Just Like You set.
What was your process for writing these album notes?
I had a lot of information from my original chats with Sly back in 2009, and we conducted a specific interview at the beginning of last year about Stoneflower. I was also fortunate to have a lot of additional strong material provided by the Konings twins, from the research they have been doing for their definitive, in-depth Sly biography (with which I am also involved); that included quotes from the members of Little Sister and 6ix, as well as manager David Kapralik and recording engineer Richard Tilles (I also met with Richard and talked to him at length). The twins and I have shared a lot of Sly information between ourselves over the years, so really it was just a matter of pulling it together in a relatively linear fashion – and hopefully making it entertaining as well as educational!
What struck you as most interesting while researching these liner notes?
I’m probably a little different to most music writers in that invariably I have also compiled the set I am annotating, and have often transferred/edited/remixed the audio. The process of doing the latter, in particular, really provides an authoritative perspective on the body of work you are commenting upon. In the case of Stoneflower, going through the session tapes was particularly enlightening as I discovered just how Sly constructed this music, and its stark difference to the highly-orchestrated sound that he was known for with the Family Stone. Standing back a bit, this simply confirmed something I already knew: that the turning point in the way he made his own music – i.e. the use of a drum machine as a template – was in actual fact a turning point in popular music that still has relevance today. Not enough credit is given to Sly Stone for the creation of what is now known as “beats”. No matter how simple his stuff may sound to modern ears, it can all be traced back to “Family Affair,” There’s A Riot Going On and even before that, the Stoneflower label productions showcased on the LITA set.
Do you have a favorite Sly memory?
Well, he’s still around, so I hope to have further favourite memories of Sly! There’s quite a few already, but the time I spent with him in 2009 is something I won’t ever forget. Watching him make music on his laptop, playing old or unreleased tracks and getting his reaction, and just having the opportunity to have meaningful, one-on-one conversations about his music and his view on life in general. Forget the negative publicity out there about the man – Sly is still one of the funniest, smartest, most incisive people you could ever hope to meet.
How do you feel about the dying art of liner notes? Why are they important and can we keep the tradition alive?
I don’t think the art of liner notes is dying per se, I just think that for the most part the level of research and hard work that one would hope to find in many reissues is all too sorely absent. Using Wikipedia is just so much easier, and the frequent howlers spotted in many liners is testament to today’s over-reliance on the internet. With all due respect to anyone who writes about older music for a living, if there is a fixed amount of copy and a deadline, many tend to go into “hack” mode and trot out the cliches or the glib prose, unless they have knowledge and passion for the subject matter. There is also the “argument” – just why is this music important? Most liner notes nowadays are rather unconvincing in that department. But you can always tell when a writer does have the all important passion.
What’s the best music journalism or nonfiction you’ve read recently?
The first part of Mark Lewisohn’s massive Beatles trilogy, Turn On (the expanded version, of course). Truly astounding and revelatory research from one of the very few qualified to talk about the Fabs.
Palao’s liner notes will not only educate you about Sly, they will learn you up some big ticket vocab words too! (Like ‘terpsichorean,’ which means ‘relating to dance,’ and ‘sobriquet,’ which is another word for ‘nickname.’)
What’s the secret to your massive vocabulary… the British school system’s superiority?
Maybe a good thesaurus? I tend to show my writing to my wife Cindy first, and she frequently chastises me over the use of “fifty cent words”! Seriously, I’m not trying to be pretentious, but I hate repetition in writing, and there are times I wish to say the same thing in different places in different ways. Plus I love the English language and like many others, am appalled at how dumbed-down so much writing about popular culture has become.
Anything exciting you’re working on at the moment?
Always . . . for LITA, next up is more work on the LHI catalog. Plus some others that I won’t spill the beans on yet!
Read our favorite quotes from Palao’s Grammy-nominated Sly-ner notes here!