Omnivore Reissues Two Van Duren Albums—Are You Serious? And Idiot Optimism

Here's one you might have missed along the way: an authentic, late-70s, unsung heavy-hitter of rock and roll medley in the Memphis vein of Big Star and Ardent studios. What if I said that this musician was in fact a peer of Big Star and even briefly had his own group with Chris Bell and Jody Stephens? What if I could characterize the music as a hybrid of Big Star, Emmitt Rhodes and Todd Rundgren, yet also have its own unique sonic quality? Sound too good to be true? Keep reading, it gets even better.

Van Duren is in fact all of the things written above: a Memphis musician who was in the rock scene during Big Star’s heyday. Duren released his first album - Are You Serious? - on Big Sound Records in 1978, toured America and sold a few thousand copies of the record. Following this, Duren began work on his second album which he deems his high-water mark, 1980’s Idiot Optimism. However, during the recording process, the staff of his label became smitten by Scientology; Duren did not. Feeling like an outsider and reading the handwriting on the wall, Duren fled the label. 20 years later, in 1999, Japanese label, Airmail, reissued Duren’s work on CD; unfortunately, with less than stellar audio fidelity. Then, another 20 years later, Omnivore Records entered the picture to set the record - literally and physically - straight.

Van Duren, like Big Star, had to wait patiently before his first two albums were given the deluxe reissue and remastering treatment that Omnivore has recently provided in their reissue of 1978’s Are You Serious? and 1980’s Idiot Optimism. Those with an original pressing of Are You Serious? know that it is expensive to track down in great shape. There are a few versions of the original which collectors can vie for: 2 U.S. releases, one of which was mastered by Robert Ludwig with the famed “rl” deadwax notation, 2 UK variants and an Australian pressing (at least, according to what’s currently in Discogs). In the case of Idiot Optimism, this is truly the first time that the vision Van had for the album was allowed to come to fruition.

Omnivore offers vinyl and CD versions of both albums which have both been remastered from the original analog tapes and are now available on CD, double LP, limited-edition colored vinyl (clear and translucent orange) and the recordings are available digitally. While I haven’t heard a copy of the original Ludwig mastering, it’s hard to imagine it gets much better than what Omnivore currently offers. Michael Graves’ mastering and Jeff Powell’s vinyl mastering of both albums have plenty of punch, midrange appeal and power; vinyl and CD of both albums sound excellent and maintain the sonic feel of the late 70s.

Still, there is some mystery surrounding the production and release of his two first records. Van was good enough to answer some of those questions and to also reflect on witnessing a reissue campaign nearly a half-century in the making. He also sheds light on much of the technical details surrounding both recordings.

ET: Can you briefly discuss the original recording/mixing/mastering processes for the first two albums? I know that's hard to do briefly, but do you recall any interesting aspects to either project from a technical/recording perspective?

VD: The first album was recorded over 13 sessions spanning June and July 1977. Co-producers Jon Tiven and Doug Snyder, both Connecticut natives, were also 2 of the 4 principals in the new indie label Big Sound Records, which operated out of a 16-track studio called Trod Nossel in Wallingford. Beginning with me on guitar or piano and a click track as I sang a reference vocal, Jon then brought in his friend Hilly Michaels to play drums while I laid down bass tracks. From there it was a matter of me layering guitars, keyboards, and vocals. Jon played lead guitar on about half the album and Doug played bass on two songs. Then in August we did 13 mixing sessions with the studio's engineer Richard Robinson, sometimes with all 4 of us moving faders on the console. By the last week of August we had finished the album. It was released in March, 1978.

The second album, Idiot Optimism, was a much more long and drawn out affair. This time I was in the producer's chair and back at Trod Nossel with Richard again at the console. Jon Tiven had left the company and the label was renamed. Recording commenced in late September, 1978, and the progression from the first record was to more of a band feel, with me playing (in most cases) with a drummer and bass player live on the floor. Although Hilly came back in on the initial session and played drums on 3 tracks, by October I was working with drummer extraordinaire Mickey Curry. Several bassists contributed to the sessions: Steve Buslowe (Meatloaf), Sal Maida (Roxy Music), and Paul J. Ossola (The Scratch Band), and I played bass on 3 of the tracks. I either played guitar or piano with the rhythm section on the initial tracks. For overdubs guitarists Tom MacGregor and Freddie Tane provided lead work, and keyboard wiz Jeff Batter (who had played in my touring band on the Are You Serious? tour) added some magic here and there. We were only able to get studio time a few days a month and some months not at all, so the project stretched out for over a year until we finished recording and began mixing the 14 tracks. In January 1980 the album was complete. Then it was shelved when the record label changed the terms of the deal and I left with a cassette of the final mixes.

ET: You mentioned the cassette tape that you got from the studio after you recorded Idiot Optimism after your label further embraced Scientology. How, then, did the Japanese Airmail label even know it existed to want to release it in the first place? How did it get from your cassette to the 1999 release if it was never released by Big Sound? Can you bridge that gap?

VD: Hiroshi Kuse, the Airmail Recordings label owner in Japan and a super guy, contacted me in early 1999. I think he sent me a letter. Hiroshi had heard about me through the power pop grapevine--Yellow Pills Magazine out of St. Louis. He inquired about Are You Serious? and whether I had the rights and the tapes etc. I did not. So I put him in touch with Trod Nossel Studio, and I called them to tell them to expect his call. The person answering the studio phone didn't know who I was--I'd been gone 19 years. I told Hiroshi that there was a second album, and a live radio broadcast from 1978 as well. So one thing led to another and Airmail released AYS? in the autumn of '99, then Idiot Optimism in early 2000, then the live album (Chemical Fire: Van Duren Live 1978) a few months later, all on CD. All I did was connect Airmail with Trod Nossel and provide basic details on musicians and song titles.

ET: Can you explain the sound quality of the Airmail release? You mentioned it sounded as though they put the whole thing through some kind of effect processor. Any clue as to why they did that? Do you have any digital files of those CDs that you can share with me?

VD: Trod Nossel Studio did the masterings for CD for the Airmail releases. I don't think they had mastering chops needed nor probably the gear, and more than one person has said that they were really compressed--squashed. I agree. But I had no hand in it, and frankly, I was thrilled that Idiot Optimism was seeing the light of day 20 years after it was completed, even if the mastering was iffy.

ET: After you left Big Sound, what was your direction with music? What were you feeling when you left Big Sound and weren't able to share your Idiot Optimism opus with the rest of the world?

VD: Well, you're talking about 19 years in between completing Idiot Optimism and the first album I did with Tommy Hoehn (Hailstone Holiday). I played more than 2000 shows during that time and recorded projects at Memphis studios like Ardent, Sounds Unreel, and Sun Studio. Some of those were released, some are still in the can. We released two albums by my band in Memphis, Good Question, in 1986 and 1991. I also wrote and recorded 1990-97 with singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Tim Horrigan, who I met in 1979 in the Northeast. Those Duren/Horrigan tracks were finally released a few years ago as Her Name Comes Up.

ET: The original album was mastered by Robert Ludwig. How do you feel about the sound of the reissue vs. the original? Can you share any insight into original vs. new. The process?

VD: I can say that Bob Ludwig is a legend, and I was blown away by his mastering in early '78. There is 46 minutes of music on Are You Serious? and he worked so much magic making that happen on one vinyl LP. The Omnivore reissues sound beautiful, though. The brilliant Michael Graves at Osiris in LA did the masters, and then our old friend Jeff Powell at Take Out Vinyl Mastering in Memphis did the vinyl masters back to back. Exquisite results, and I am thrilled with all that Jeff and Michael have done to make these records from so long ago come back to life.

orthobiz's picture

And wondering what "simulated stereo" means on the back cover...

The Big Star/Rhodes/Rundgren analogy is spot on.


orthobiz's picture

It says STIMULATED stereo.
I get it, the joke's on me.