Had the honor of interviewing legendary keyboardist, composer and member of The Cure, Roger O’Donnell. In addition to having an active solo career, Roger has worked with numerous bands and artists throughout his career, including the Thompson Twins, Psychedelic Furs, and Berlin.
We talk about his synth heroes, joining The Cure, his solo music, the early days of synthesizers and more below.
Photos provided by Ambar Navarro for Synth History.
Synth History: Do you remember what first got you into synths and what your first synth was?
Roger: I saw Roxy Music on Top of the Pops and they were playing “Virginia Plain”, with that classic synth break in the middle. I always thought it was a Minimoog but then I found out later it was an EMS VCS3 and I was like… what is that?
Becoming a guitarist or a dummer or a bass player, you can buy something really cheap. You can’t buy a synth cheap, can you? My first synth was a Wasp. It didn't have a real keyboard on it but it sounded great. I knew the guys that built them. I had a part-time job at a keyboard store and they were the main agents for it. There was this famous keyboard store in London at the time called Rod Argent's. I used to hang out in there and they gave me a job one day. I wish I still had that synth.
Synth History: I was going to ask you if you still had it! I read that whilst on tour with the Psychedelic Furs you set the record for having the most Sequential models on stage at the same time. Can you tell me about that and what drew you to Sequential?
Roger: Absolutely. I think I had a Prophet 600, a Prophet T8, a Prophet VS, a Prophet 2002 and a Prophet 2000.
Synth History: Whoah.
Roger: That was it, yeah. When I first got into synths I loved Moogs, but when the Prophet 5 came out it was so much more user-friendly on stage because you could program it and recall patches. I couldn't afford a Prophet 5, so I got the Prophet 600, which was like a budget version of the Prophet 5. The filters weren’t as good and you could hear them like, step, but it was a great synth. My first big gig was with the Thompson Twins and I used it on the first tour. I didn’t even have a flight case. After that I bought a Prophet T8 and it cost me a whole tour’s wages. When I moved to the Psychedelic Furs I had all of them on stage at the same time.
Synth History: When MIDI first came around, do you think most musicians were accepting of it, or were they wary?
Roger: We loved it. The Prophet 600 was actually one of the first instruments made with MIDI. When I bought the Prophet T8, we MIDI’d them together. My keyboard tech made a pedal so that I could play the two together and then press this button that would stop the connection, unlatch them. What we didn’t work out was that if you were holding a chord and you pressed the button, everything hung because it didn’t get the MIDI-off signal.
It was early days. We didn’t know any of that stuff. We just loved anything that could join things together, you know, control one keyboard from another. It just made it all so easy. Do you think there was resistance there at the time?
Synth History: I remember Queen had — it wasn’t “No MIDI” per se, but I remember it was “No Synthesizers!” on some of their album liner notes, then later they’d end up using synths. People are wary of new technology sometimes, I guess.
Roger: That’s why I loved Jan Hammer, because he did that album that said “No guitars used!”
You have to understand where I come from in the keyboard world, when I first started hanging around with bands they’d tell me, “If you want to play piano in the band there are two electric pianos - a Fender Rhodes or Wurlitzer.” I ended up with a Hohner Pianet which is a whole other thing.
When synthesizers were coming out you’d read about the new technology or you’d see a band playing with them. I would go and see Herbie Hancock, he’s one of my heroes, and every time he’d play he’d have a new instrument. I’d be like, what is that or how does that work. It was an amazing time, the invention of synthesizers. The Model D, then the Prophet 5, all these things just coming out one right after the other.
Synth History: Following the inclusion of your song "Another Year Away" in the 2004 Moog documentary soundtrack, you released an album using mainly the Minimoog Voyager. What was it like recording with only one synthesizer?
Roger: Well, I’d become quite good friends with the people at Moog during that time. I just got a Voyager and somebody at the company put me in touch with the producer of the documentary. They asked me to write a song for it and I thought it’d be really cool to try and create something using only the Voyager. It really took me back to my roots orchestrating and arranging songs using a monophonic synth. I couldn't build it up using MIDI, I had to commit to a sound and then record the next sound. If I wanted to play a chord, then I had to play the three notes separately. It made me approach creating music differently and I really enjoyed the experience. I gave them the song and the producer said, “You should do an album with this.” I said, “Really?” And he said, “Yeah.” And so I did.
I ended up doing two albums using only the Voyager. The first one was really just me finding my way with it, broad kind of strokes like painting. On the second one I got into the detail, you can really hear the transition between the two.
Synth History: What are some of the main songwriting differences between writing with a piano versus a synth, besides the sound of course, and what is your process like in general?
Roger: The piano will always be my primary instrument because that’s what I grew up playing with. The sound of the piano, equally I would say with the Voyager, is like my voice. At the time I was doing the Voyager only records, Björk released that Medúlla album where she just used her voice. She didn’t use instruments. I kind of thought it was parallel to that. When I write with the piano it’s more of a wholistic approach. You’ve got the chords and the bass, the piano is an orchestra in itself. Whereas with synths, especially when I’m using the Voyager, it’s more of a solo voice. It’s a big difference. With the Voyager I build things up, with the piano it’s all there, all at once.
My songwriting process is very stream of consciousness. It all just comes out. I can finish an album in two weeks. I recently released a new solo record using a new instrument I discovered called an Una Corda. It's like a piano, but with only one string. It's really fragile and percussive and leads you to play repeating arpeggios. As soon as I got that sound, I just started playing these arpeggios, and it went on and on until I made a whole album.
Synth History: That’s so cool!
Roger: I’m very inspired by new instruments. I’m really excited to get the new Model D because it’s kind of like going home to me. I’ve seen yours, I think it’s one of the most beautiful instruments ever made. It just makes so much sense, the way the sound flows across the knobs. It’s beautiful and functional. It does what it’s meant to do. It’s a classic instrument, like the saxophone or a violin. I think it really is the classic synthesizer. It should probably be in the Smithsonian if it isn’t already.
Synth History: What are the benefits and drawbacks of creating and performing music as a solo artist versus with a band?
Roger: I don’t think there are any drawbacks for creating music solo because you don’t have to deal with five other guys (laughs). You know, you’re a solo artist. As a solo artist, you sit at home or in your studio, you play, and you inspire yourself. You exist within that solo bubble. You bring in a couple of other people and it can start growing exponentially and it can be incredible, but with the wrong people it can also be like bashing heads against a brick wall. I always find it difficult to work with other musicians on my solo music because I can only ever hear things one way. If somebody says, “Why don’t you change that?” I’m like, “That’s the way it’s supposed to be.” I can’t change it.
In a band, you have to give and take all the time. You also have to be really aware of what you’re playing and make sure it doesn’t step over somebody else. Hopefully, they’re equally as aware of you, but generally, they’re not, especially guitarists. They’ll do their best to fill every gap there is.
Synth History: How did you first become involved with The Cure?
Roger: They had just made a new record called, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me. It had loads of keyboards on it. They didn’t have a real keyboard player in the band and realized going on tour was going to be tricky without one. The drummer at the time, Boris, was a really old friend of mine. He suggested me for keyboards. They said, “We need a keyboard player for five weeks in America, do you want to do it?” I was in a band, The Psychedelic Furs, at the time. We had a tour and an album coming out. The thought of playing with my old friend Boris, I thought I’d like to do that. But I needed the money, I was a working musician. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to give all that up for five weeks.
They (The Cure) sent me a cassette of the album. I put it in, and within 30 seconds I was like, I’m gonna do it.
Synth History: What were some of the synths used on Disintegration?
Roger: We were talking about the progression of keyboards and synthesizers earlier. By this stage, in the mid-to-late ‘80s, there were samplers. Suddenly, you could play a whole orchestra, a Japanese shakuhachi flute, a whole choir. You had the Mellotron, but that was very limited. On Disintegration, it was mostly samplers as far as keyboards. There weren’t really any, what I’d call, synths. I was thinking about that today, the difference between synths and samplers. I think the difference has become blurred. At the time we were using an E-mu Emulator II and III.
They were a great company, E-mu. They disappeared didn’t they?
Synth History: Yeah. They had some pretty neat instruments.
Roger: I was using a lot of samples from the Emulator II. I had a Prophet 2002, which I was using a lot of samples from as well. All the strings were sampled. Then a real piano. Oh, and the ARP Solina String Ensemble. Can you call that a synthesizer? I guess you could, a synth with limited presets. So yeah, it was a lot of samples.
Synth History: What do you think of drum machines?
Roger: I love drum machines. The first drum machine I had was the E-mu Drumulator, I used it when I moved to LA in 1985 to break into the movie soundtrack business and left six months later with my tail between my legs. The Roland R-8, we used that on Disintegration, actually. I’ve got the Elektron drum machine. We were just in Sweden on tour and I emailed Elektron because I wanted to have a couple of little things in the dressing room or in my hotel room. They gave me a couple of things which was really nice of them, because I don’t expect to get stuff for free.
Synth History: What are some tips for somebody looking for a new synthesizer?
Roger: It depends on what they want to do, doesn’t it? Personally, I would tell them to buy a Moog or one of Dave’s Sequential Circuits and as soon as they get it, erase all the presets. They should find out how it works and not put any effects on it, or at least not the internal ones anyway. Erase the presets immediately and avoid using anyone else's sounds. Creating your own sounds are just as much a part of the creative process as writing a song and the notes being played.
Synth History: If you could score any movie, who would direct it and what genre would it be?
Roger: Definitely Martin Scorsese. A gangster movie.
Synth History: Nice. What instruments would you use?
Roger: Orchestra, absolutely.
Synth History: No synths?
Roger: Nah, as soon as you get into synths it becomes— it’s either got to be an ‘80s movie or a sci-fi movie, right?
Synth History: I guess so. You could hide some in there. I think Hans Zimmer sometimes hides them in there.
Roger: Oh yeah, I forgot about him. I just did my first score for a kind of romantic drama comedy. I used the Una Corda and Harmonium. It’s very stripped down, a very kind of emotional sound. I always wanted to do it and it was really fun. It was very much a collaboration with the director.
My favorite soundtrack is the Bernard Herrmann score for Taxi Driver. It’s my all-time favorite film. If I could score a film with Robert De Niro in it, I would die happy.
Synth History: So you like scoring then?
Roger: Yeah, but it’s really hard. You have to let go of your ego and put it to one side. When you've written the most perfect piece of music for a scene in the movie, and you think, this is it, this is the best it could possibly be, and the director says, “Yeah, I really like it, but can you do it again?” You just have to go, “Okay”, because you’re working for somebody else. It’s not your thing, you know? The music has to support the scene, it can’t overwhelm it. Darren, who I worked with on this film, Sam & Kate, he said, “Roger, I really love this piece of music. This piece of music just cries out to be in a film. It should be in a film. Just not my film.” (laughs)
Synth History: (laughs) Well, I guess that was kind of a nice let down?
Roger: We’re really good friends now, but it was a real struggle. There were stages in the process where I’d write like twenty seven cues and send it to him. We’d listen to it on FaceTime and I’d write notes. He’d say, “Oh, this cue isn’t quite right, can you explore?” And I’m like… what the fuck does explore mean? I would go away from it and think, I don’t need to do this. I don’t need the money. I don’t want to do this. But I kept trying and in the end I was really happy with it.
Synth History: What is something - could be anything and doesn’t have to be related to music in any way, that is inspiring you right now. Something that makes you really happy?
Roger: The weather. The Los Angeles weather. You know what? The sun. Although when it’s summer in England, I don’t even remember that my studio exists. I don’t go anywhere near it. I’m most creative in the Spring and Autumn.
Synth History: What are some synths that you’ll never get rid of?
Roger: The Prophet VS, I would never get rid of that. I wanted one for years and I ended up paying a lot of money for it in London. It’s got such a classic sound. I’d never get rid of my Prophet 600 or the T8 because they’re so sentimental to me. My Fender Rhodes, I would probably never sell that. Now I’ve got the Model D coming in, because the old one is… well, you know. Bob never meant it to be like a musical instrument, did he? it was initially meant for sound effects and stuff.
Synth History: Especially the big Moog Modular. People just didn’t know the potential of the synthesizer in those early days.
Roger: No, and they didn't know that it was going to be so musical. I mean, when Jan Hammer got hold of his first Model D, how did he turn it into that weapon that he used on stage? When did he realize that with the pitch bend he could play it like a guitar? How did that transformation happen? It was incredible. Those Mahavishnu Orchestra albums just blew everyone away.
Synth History: Those old videos are great, too!
Roger: Oh yeah, when he's constantly going to the tune knob because it’s drifting! I got to present him (Jan Hammer) with the Bob Moog award at Moog Fest in 2006. It was so weird, because he and Herbie were like my all-time keyboard heroes, and he was just this guy who could’ve been my uncle. He was so friendly.
There was a Mahavishnu Orchestra tribute band that were playing, he actually went on stage and played with them. But we were standing on the side of the stage watching these guys play and I asked him, “What does it feel like watching these guys play your parts?” He didn’t seem all that bothered. He had also sold all his gear, he didn’t own his Fender Rhodes anymore. That Fender Rhodes was so— the attack on it was so incredible when he played it through a ring modulator, before he got the Minimoog I guess. Sold all of his stuff, his keytar. Have you ever played a keytar on stage?
Synth History: I haven’t.
Roger: Oh, come on now.
Synth History: I know, I know. (laughs) I don’t know what I’m thinking.
Roger: I bought one in the ‘80s. I played it once on stage, in this all-star band at that club on Vine, The Palace. Never again. It’s stupid. You just look stupid, let’s be honest. And that’s where the interview ends. (laughs)
Synth History Exclusive.
Interview conducted by Danz.
Photographer: Ambar Navarro.
Camera and Lighting Assistant: Max Flick.
Lighting Assistant: Charles Han.
HMU: Leticia Llesmin.
Special thanks to Moog Music, Matthew James Reilly and Cody Crump.
Prophet 600 scan via Retro Synth Ads.