An Interview with Professor Warren Liu
I decided to interview English Professor Warren Liu about his top five favorite albums, because music is a subject about which he is passionate and knowledgeable, and it is refreshing for me to present alternative perspectives in this column.
I asked him to choose five albums that had impacted him in some way, and he listed them chronologically by his introduction to them. Through the course of the interview, some additional details came to light.
“At Berkeley, I would often just wander around [the recently opened Amoeba Music] and look through the albums and talk to the clerks there, who were all filled with knowledge in that impressive music-geek kind of way,” Liu said.
While he has long been interested in discovering new music, he confessed to being an amateur musician: “I play guitar but was never really in any kind of official ‘band.’ In college, I’d get together with my roommates, and we’d write and record these completely absurd songs, like ‘Beer and Roommates’... [another] problem was that none of us could sing, so the whole exercise was a disaster.”
While his preferred recorded medium is an exuberant “Vinyl!” the genres of current music he enjoys are quite broad. He expressed particular interest in jazz (Albert Ayler), noise (Double Leopards), British grime/garage and popular hip-hop (“just whatever is on the radio while I’m driving in the car”).
Finally, he is not as into all the music he once listened to, AC/DC’s Back in Black being a prime example.
However, Liu is still “delighted every time I hear that opening riff, even if it’s on a Gap commercial selling skinny jeans.”
1. AC/DC, Back in Black – Back in Black is the first album my brother owned. He was three years older than me and just getting into heavy metal — my Dad was very suspicious. I remember going with both my dad and my brother to the record store to buy Back in Black.
My dad interrogated the clerk at the record store, asking him if this was bad music that would have a negative effect on my brother. My dad agreed to buy it and we took it home and listened to it on a children’s portable record player.
At the time, [my brother and I] were sharing a room. I have fond memories of listening to Back in Black over and over again. After my dad heard it, he didn’t let my brother buy any other AC/DC albums, but [my brother] still managed to borrow them from friends.
I still have a place in my heart for all types of classic rock, especially AC/DC.
2. and 3. Charles Mingus, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady and Van Morrison, Astral Weeks – The Mingus and Morrison were the first two CDs I ever owned. I was in high school, and this was right around the time portable CD players were becoming relatively affordable, and I had just purchased one.
At the time, I was working an evening job at a bookstore, so I was able to save up enough to get one, but then realized that I could only afford two CDs, since they were still fairly expensive at the time, especially compared to LPs and cassettes. So, I did all this research, and found some guide to the “best releases on CD of the year” or something like that, which ranked the Mingus and the Morrison as the top two.
They were both a revelation to me, actually, and sounded amazing on CD — Mingus is still one of my favorite musicians — and Astral Weeks is also amazing, much of it recorded as on-the-spot improvisation, which you can kind of hear. I listened to these two albums obsessively, as I couldn’t afford to buy new CDs for several months.
4. Pavement, Perfect Sound Forever 10” EP – Pavement was my favorite band in college. That EP is a ten-inch and came out right before Slanted and Enchanted. I can’t remember the title of the first track but it just has this amazing guitar attack. I just love the sound of them.
At the time, there was this explosion of lo-fi, DIY, Indie and local production. I just thought it was great that it was so unpolished. “Summer Babe” came out at around the same time, and for at least a year, that was my anthem song. I listened to it over and over. [Pauses] Well, I still like Pavement. I’ll just say that.
5. Federico Mompou, Musica Callada – I didn’t know a lot about classical music [except] that CD...I spent a summer in the mountains of North Carolina working with an independent publisher by the names of John Williams, who was the founder of Jargon Press. I was interning for him and sort of hanging out in the woods.
He introduced me to this series of piano compositions by Mompou. There was something really peaceful about sitting in the woods listening to it. I had a hut I would go to for writing, so I would listen to Musica Callada as I wrote and drank tea in the mornings. The music evokes that natural landscape and lush greenery for me.