A Conversation with Frank Lee Sprague about his
Fred: Frank, what makes Merseybeat, Merseybeat?
Frank: Named after the Mersey River in Liverpool. The region produced a distinct style of rock ‘n’ roll after the “skiffle
Fred: As well as the Beatles, which “British Invasion”
artists stand out for you?
Frank: Swinging Blue Jeans, Herman’s Hermits, Dave
Clark 5. There’s just so many to name.
All of them had incredible songs and they hold an importance in my memories.
Fred: Are there one or two songs that seem quintessential Merseybeat
Frank: “Some Other Guy” is a MB standard and “There’s
a Place” or “Please Please Me” would be some well known examples.
Fred: Any particular favorites of the genre?
Frank: My favs include “Promise You’ll Tell Her”
and “Too Late Now” by the Swinging Blue Jeans, “Come On Back” by the Hollies,
“I’ll Get You” and “Hold Me Tight” by the Beatles, and “Because” by the Dave Clark
Fred: Was Merseybeat a formative influence? What were its first songs to impact you?
Frank: My motto is “influenced by none, inspired by many.” My memories are all clouded with naked women by candlelight, but some songs that had
an impact on me were “Roll Over Beethoven”, “Words of Love”, and “Honey
Fred: The Beatles,
Searchers and Hollies were strongly influenced by the more melodic Buddy Holly songs, “Listen to Me” and “Words
of Love” for example. As a West Texan who has also played rockabilly, do
you see Merseybeat as a branch off the Holly line?
Frank: I don’t see Merseybeat as a branch. I see rock ‘n’ roll as a melting pot, which means that a lot of different styles of music combine
to make the ultimate style which is rock ‘n’ roll. It’s always
growing and always fresh. Merseybeat was a part of this growing, and Buddy Holly
was definitely a big influence. The first recording still around that the Beatles
did was “That’ll Be the Day”.
Fred: Carl Perkins was also clearly a strong influence on British
groups, yet their originals don’t really sound like his. How was rockabilly
absorbed into the Merseybeat sound?
Frank: Rockabilly as some people see
it (Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Johnny Burnette) had more of a “country music” sound. The Southern accent and feel. I think that most of the British didn’t translate that into their music very
well. That’s what made their rock ‘n’ roll different and cool
in its own way. George Harrison’s lead guitar playing on Beatles ’65 was an example of him trying to play country guitar, but coming out was his own style, which
for me is the pinnacle of lead guitar playing!
Fred: Let’s talk about the nitty-gritty of the Merseybeat
style. What instruments are identified with Merseybeat? I’m thinking for instance of the use of prominent snares and occasional non-bluesy harmonica such
as John Lennon’s on “Love Me Do” and others, clearly influenced
by Texan Delbert McClinton’s playing on “Hey Baby” by Bruce Channel.
Frank: Well, I think that when the skiffle groups started using
electric guitar, that’s when Merseybeat became nascent. So electric guitar
is the Merseybeat instrument, especially the sound that they got with the Vox,
Selmer and other similar amps. The electric bass guitar got a big boost as well, most notably when a member of the “Big
Three” (Adrian Barber) made his now famous “coffin” amp. The move to full drum sets also took the earlier
groups into the realm of rockn’roll.
Fred: How does Merseybeat vocal harmony differ from earlier
branches of rock ‘n’ roll? It seems more related to the harmonies
of girl groups such as the Shirelles than to doo-wop for instance. Also, the
British harmony style seemed to strongly influence such American groups as the Byrds and the Beau Brummels, but not the Beach
Frank: I think the harmonies of Merseybeat are mostly the same
as earlier rock ‘n’ roll, such as the Everly Brothers and Sparkletones.
You’ll find the girl groups influence in the background vocals, which is a different subject than harmony. The Beach Boys are in a class all their own.
Fred: You’ve recorded quite a few albums as leader of
the Sprague Brothers. How does the recording process of this album differ from
that of your earlier albums?
Frank: There isn’t a difference in the actual process,
but the songs on this LP are a giant step up from anything I’ve ever recorded.
Fred: Your recordings have a modern sheen to them, yet have
the feel of vintage records. The drums crack, the guitars ring, the vocals are
upfront, obviously carefully mixed. How do you achieve that sound, using mostly
Frank: All of the bands that recorded Merseybeat were always
recording on mostly contemporary equipment. Whatever equipment you have to work
with isn’t usually the problem with the music; it’s whether or not you have the soul in your music.
Fred: Are there any particular techniques you use for Merseybeat
that you wouldn’t for other types of music?
Frank: The techniques for MB as far as playing goes are unique. For instance, the guitar sound has to feel
a certain way, (Vox, Selmer amp sound) and the electric bass guitar should be booming,
and the drum fills are in a different style. The recording sound is different, but not the process, just the feel of the sound, and the mixing is gonna involve some different
techniques as far as panning and reverb, etc. I’m not trying to record
something that sounds like it was recorded in a certain yearI don’t like that contrived crap. Everything that I record is all about the feel, not trying to capture
from way back when. Those people didn’t try to sound decades older, why should I?
Fred: Obviously you don’t see Merseybeat as anachronistic
but as a living form. Others such as the Kaisers and Neatbeats try for this sound. What approaches set you apart and how?
Frank: My approach to MB is the same as for Classical, Hillbilly,
Pirate Music, etc. “If it ain’t pure, then you can’t be sure.” I’m gonna be approaching all of these songs with an attitude of being true to
the music and true to myself.
Fred: What special West Texas
sensibilities do you bring to Beatlesque sounding music?
Frank: Anything I play, whether it be Merseybeat or even Classical,
is gonna contain the fact that I am from Texas, it’s
unavoidable. When Buddy Holly was imitating Elvis, in his early stages, (or even
earlier when he was imitating Hank Williams) he still sounded “West Texan”.
And you can hear that in my music as well.
Fred: Do you remember the first song you wrote?
Frank: That was a surf song that I wrote with my older brother. It was actually a vocal, though it was based on an instro we were trying to write.
Fred: What were your early song writing attempts like?
Frank: I was writing more of vocals and melody, and just sort
of feeling the harmonic progression. As
I progressed in study of the guitar and other instruments, then I found it easier to write out the chords that I was feeling.
I eventually got to a point where I didn’t need to write down music or have an instrument handy while composing because
I had developed my ear training and knowledge of music to the point of being able to just write in my head.
Fred: When did you feel the stirrings of a Frank Lee Sprague
Frank: Pretty much from the beginning. I knew that I thought differently and I had a creative talent for a lot of things, and music was my place
in life. I knew that as well. My style is marked by new and original chords and
chord progressions, with the modulations from key to key being natural and yet unprecedented. I know this because I’ve
spent my life studying music, and I’m familiar with the works of other composers, and with pop music. So when I write
something, it is just coming out of a God given talent, and after it’s done, I kinda sit back
sometimes and think “wow, never heard that progression before” or “that’s a weird modulation.”
I never force anything in my writing, that’s why I feel there is soul in my music.
Fred: You mentioned that the new songs are a step up for you. Has this leap in your songwriting and producing come recently and if so, was there
a catalyst? Or has your abilities as songwriter, musician and producer steadily
progressed over time?
Frank: Actually this isn’t the biggest leap that I’ll
be taking. I have saved all of my best work for release in the future, and I’m
already in the process of recording that as well. These songs for the Merseybeat
LP are gonna be a big step up from my previous work, and it will be self evident in the songs themselves. It’s gonna be gear!
Fred: Let’s talk about the recording process. Having worked with other producers, when did it become clear that you wanted to produce yourself?
Frank: I haven’t really worked with anyone that claims
to be a bona fide “producer”, but I knew that after a lifetime of study, and learning all the tricks in regards
to recording and producing, that I would be the one who most knew my music. And
the fact that producing is akin to orchestrating a symphony makes me even more qualified ‘cause who else is into this
style of music and is also a composer?
Fred: Did you enjoy learning how to use all of the technology? Do you work closely with an engineer or do much of it yourself?
Frank: I always enjoy learning, just ask my girlfriends! I have worked with excellent engineers at Paramount
and Radio Recorders, but I’m actually doing the basic engineering myself now.
I will be taking the master to a mastering studio, where qualified people like Jeff King can work their voodoo on it.
Fred: Once you’ve recorded the basic tracks, do you tend
to fill in much?
Frank: I work with one track and then try to keep any overdubs
to a minimum. As they say, “don’t overcook it.”
Fred: As digital has replaced analog has your approach changed
Frank: Well, digital hasn’t replaced analog entirely. And my approach is the same as usual. Get
drunk, get laid, then go record before you sober up.
Fred: Your Sprague Brothers song “Forever and a Day”
and some others feature a 12 string electric guitar sound similar to A Hard Day’s
Night era Beatles records. Is that a favorite period of yours?
Frank: That would be a favorite era of anyone who isn’t
Fred: What type of guitar is that? Do you plan to use it and others?
Frank: I use my Dan Electro electric 12 string guitar on recordings. My electric 6 string is my Fender Jaguar. For
acoustic I use a cheap Zody’s classical guitar, a Guild steel string, and a few other ones. I can get whatever sound I want outta whatever instrument. The
sound is in the fingers daddy-o!
Fred: What type of bass do you use?
Frank: My electric bass is a 70’s Fender Precision Bass.
Frank: I use a bunch of different drums; Sonor, Ludwig, Premiere,
etc. I feel that I can get the sound that I want by playing with the feel required.
Fred: Any final thoughts about your upcoming Merseybeat album?
Frank: I have so many different beats and types of songs that
I’m including on this Merseybeat LP, that there will inevitably be a lot of different vocal styles, lead, harmony, and
background, ranging from Coasters style to Be-at-ills and beyond. I always do
something that has never been done before; it just usually doesn’t get noticed.
I go by feel. I always use my natural instinct in anything I do in music. It’s called “soul”. Being
pure and true to yourself instead of thinking things like“how this will please so and so,” etc.,
means that you know in the end that you have used your talent that was given to you as you should’ve. Rock on!