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Interview with Roger O'Donnell of The Cure

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.

Roger O'Donnell by Ambar Navarro.

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.

Roger O' Donnell by Ambar Navarro.

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 mac