Interview: Alex & Roy Orbison Jr.

Roy Orbison Mystery Girl Cover Art

The sons of rock and roll pioneer Roy Orbison are excited to be back in Canada because his father always loved coming here. They love it so much that during a recent promotional stop Alex Orbison and Roy Orbison Jr. wish that more people talked about his Canadian connections: duets with noted singer songwriter and fan k.d. lang and Neil Young’s widely known affinity for Roy’s work, in particular.

If I had more time to chat with Alex and Roy, I certainly would have brought a bunch of that stuff up, and a lot of other things related to their dad’s life and work. One doesn’t amass millions upon millions of records sold, make it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in only the second year it ever existed, and acquire a legion of people who cite him as an indelible influence (everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Bono and beyond) without having lived a hell of a life.

This past week, Alex and Roy Jr. were able to share a very special project that’s been near and dear to the hearts of the Orbison family for quite a long time. On the 25th anniversary of Roy’s last proper album, Mystery Girl, the Orbison estate has put together a remastered Deluxe edition of the record (which hit stores this past Tuesday, with a vinyl package due out in June). It’s a special enough album on its own, boasting guest appearances from Tom Petty, Bono, and George Harrison, just to namedrop a small handful. It was an album that became a huge commercial and critical success late in Roy’s career and a release that hinted at a career resurgence for one of the earliest rock icons.

Sadly, Roy would pass away at the age of 52 in December of 1988, several months before Mystery Girl was even released and before his most beloved song “Oh, Pretty Woman” would become a hit once again. That track and Mystery Girl’s now almost equally beloved and moving “You Got It” made Roy Orbison the only artist in history to have two top ten Billboard hits after his passing.

The Orbisons, including their late mother Barbara who handled most of Roy’s management and estate affairs, have always been hands on in their father’s work, and this deluxe edition album is no exception. Not only do they dig into the archives to pull out some killer early demos from the album, but Alex and Roy Jr. (along with their older brother Wesley) have also produced an exclusive and in depth look at the making of the album. Talking to all of the album’s key players that are still with us today and utilizing long unseen footage of the album coming together, Roy Jr. and Alex have created a wonderful little supplemental film to go with the album that shows just how personally Roy took his work and the input of everyone around him, family included.

We chatted with Roy’s sons about growing up around such a legend, the ability to respect their father’s wishes when remastering the album, and how much Roy valued having his family in and around the studio when a lot of other acts probably wouldn’t have.

Roy Orbison Jr. (left) and Alex Orbison (right)
Roy Orbison Jr. (left) and Alex Orbison (right)

Dork Shelf: You guys really grew up around this album and now you have a great hand in remounting and remastering everything and making a documentary about this final album, so what’s it like looking back on something you guys were around at the time, but now you can look back and find out all these things you never knew were going on?

Alex Orbison: For me, I was between ten and thirteen years old when all this was happening, so everything was really pretty normal day-to-day stuff in the Orbison household. Looking back and being able to see and put it in a historical perspective, and to also look back on it as an adult and see how these people treated each other was great.

What happened there was so remarkable on top of just the record. George Harrison was there. Tom Petty was there. Bono was there. The starpower from the outside looking in was definitely impressive, but for me it was that you were seeing these people all on equal footing and collaborating, and they have just such a parallel creative space. You have Tom Petty, who was a giant by that time, but he was still younger than Roy. I mean, my father was one of the forefathers of rock and roll, but to still watch him with Tom Petty just shooting the breeze about whatever ideas they had was great and humbling. When they were good ideas, they were accepted. When they were bad ideas, they were rejected. They didn’t have more weight because they were coming from one person or another. For me to be able to wrap my head around that after I’ve lived a little in the business end and with musical relationships – or really just all personal relationships – and to see how nice everyone was to him was wonderful. I think it was Tom who said that everyone was on their best behaviour when Roy was around. (laughs) That magic was also in there, too.

Roy Orbison Jr.: This Mystery Girl Deluxe package is a beautiful blessing. It’s kind of like looking through your high school yearbook or something, only a lot less awkward. (laughs) Every little detail brings back thoughts and emotions. In a way, there was a lot of detective and forensic work that had to go into pulling off the documentary like this, and those were the surprises for me that you were wondering about.

I was remembering things that I never even knew were being filmed. I have my memory and my perspective of what happened, but to see it from another angle, even, was just beautiful. It was nice to see the rooms they recorded in again, because I didn’t remember everything about that. To see the mixing board at Rumbo Records or to see Barbara sitting on a couch organizing everything while they were all recording. It was great seeing a lot of those faces again, some of whom aren’t with us anymore, like George and Don Smith, who was a great engineer who worked on a couple more great solo albums with Roy. When you see those videos, it brings it all back. It was like no time had passed at all.

DS: It’s a very humble sounding record despite all that starpower, and even though Roy is front and centre, you can see how it influences a lot of records that come out today where people think every song needs a special guest of some kind. It seems like Roy was always able to bring people in because they genuinely wanted to work with him instead of people showing up on an album just for the sake of raising their profile. What’s it like being able to get in touch with some of these people who played on the record and talk to them about the influence Roy had on them for the documentary?

AO: It’s really touching for us as a family to see those official interviews. Behind the scenes, we’re all good friends, so to be able to focus and get all those stories out is really special. It is different to watch people talk to the world about your dad – who just happens to be someone like Roy Orbison – and you know you have people like Jeff Lynne who talk about listening to that first Roy Orbison record and wondering what had happened to make that kind of sound. He had gone back into that space and he was just back there again. He has such an affinity, and that carried out through the whole record and the whole documentary. It’s just so pure.

DS: With you guys being family, I think you guys appreciate how rare it is to be able to keep everything within the family and oversee things on a remastering job for one of your dad’s most famous albums. That doesn’t happen very often, so what’s it like to be able to go back and remaster something that you lived with and have a real hands on approach as to how it comes to a new life?

ROJ: Well, we just kind of already leaned on what Roy already did and the choices that were already made. The songs were in the same order. We never tried to get funky with it. I think that’s because we always had such a close family. We actually know what choices dad would make, so we just ask ourselves what Roy would have done. And Barbara was always managing Roy’s affairs even after his death in the same way. We were always aware of what this was about and that the focus was always on him. In some cases where we’d be going on a bit of a tangent on something or it was getting away from us, we would always just say “More Roy! More Roy!” (laughs) That’s why sometimes you see that we have no choice other than to not edit. You get the full two minute and forty five second one camera angle, even with the flaws and everything, because that’s Roy in his element. How are you going to edit away anything?

AO: Yeah, there were things that we really wanted that weren’t working out, and every time we tried to grasp it, we kept getting further away. It was like trying to grab a balloon that was getting away for some of our ideas. But the second time something happened it just became clear, “Well, this was something that mom or dad just never wanted!” (laughs) There’s one path on this thing, and it was what was coming together and materializing in front of us. Everything else that wasn’t a part of the Mystery Girl deluxe package just drifted away.

ROJ: Even some of the walls we hit ended up leading to a better choice.

DS: The relationship that Roy had with Barbara comes out beautifully on the album, particularly with regard to some of the new footage and tracks that you include in this package. What’s it like fleshing out that relationship, because I think it’s a great story that comes out here that hasn’t really been told that much before.

AO: Barbara was such a part of the story when we lost our dad that she became front and centre for us and for his memory, and she was never going to promote herself and come out directly and say what she did on the album. She was really coy about that, so that kind of got washed away.

With her passing and our taking it over and realizing there’s really only this one story there, the things and threads that made themselves evident and became so clear was that this was really a Roy and Barbara record. We could see that and the people around us could see that, too. They were both singing together, and the manner of picking the songs really comes out in the bonus content. There were songs that he dedicated specifically to her in writing. That’s just so special to us. It really is one of the most powerful working relationships of any artist ever. That was the stuff that ended up being so good! (laughs) It wasn’t a divergent partnership, but it was a true underlining of everything. That’s a beautiful thing for us to see our parents in that light.

ROJ: Roy was so strong of a man that he never had a problem letting Barbara be an equal. That’s very different from a normal working relationship and a loving relationship. That’s something I think was unique to him. That respect that he gave her even though she never actually played an instrument, and to say to them on your own album that they’re an equal, that says something. Not to put down anyone else, but there’s not a lot of famous people doing that. Family isn’t even really allowed in these things most of the time. It’s kind of one of those unwritten rock rules that family shouldn’t be allowed in the studio.

DS: That also extends to the contribution of your brother Wesley on the album, which I also didn’t know about, and watching both of you and Barbara in the documentary light up at the mention of the work he put in was really sweet. Even Wesley still seems amazed that one of his songs made it on the record!

AO: We’re all so proud of Wesley, and our dad was so proud of him and his songwriting capabilities and talent. And like we said before, if it wasn’t up to par, it wouldn’t have made the record, period. That was a big moment for Roy and Barbara, and as the two younger brothers, we were just over the moon. The deepness in the lyric showed that he just really nailed it. I remember reading those lyrics and I asked him in awe how he came up with it, and he very matter-of-factly said “Well, when you get going you try to get some rhyming couplets…” (laughs) And I said, “No! Not that! Everything behind it!” But that is Wesley’s manner and how he acts, though.

And the things that we talk about on the documentary, it wasn’t that we hadn’t talked about these things in 25 years. We had NEVER talked about these things. When I started crying in the documentary, it was literally because I had never told Wesley that I had heard his demo before it was done. That was one of my most secret memories and innermost thoughts.

When you go through the pain of losing someone it takes a lot. It took me sixteen years just to get to a point where I was okay talking about it. At that point, I didn’t think to tell Wesley or anyone in our innermost core that I remember hearing that demo. When Roy talks about wanting to be in dad’s band, those were thoughts that were felt and never expressed. The basis of our involvement in it had us going out on a limb because we had never talked about any of that stuff in public or to each other before. We literally had a huddle before we went in that room and said “What interview is it we are going to give?” We all decided we were going to give all we had and just go for it…

ROJ: And to talk to each other…

AO: Yeah! And to talk to each other.

ROJ: You can kind of see me when I’m on camera kind of looking back at Alex or Wesley or someone, and maybe that’s not the best interview technique…

AO: We interviewed each other. When I’m on camera it was Roy and Wes, and when Wes was on it was me and Roy, and so on and so on. That was how we got to our deepest points, just by talking to each other.

ROJ: And taking out of it our personal feelings about the album, Wesley’s song, which was called “The Only One,” has Steve Cropper playing guitar on it. It has this Stax instrumentation to it, and these horns. The music was just incredible. So all of those solid emotional bases that we hit wouldn’t mean as much without that great music to back it up. They would at the very least not be as interesting. If you really want to know about our emotions in doing this, you really only have to listen to “The Only One.” It’s a lot of people’s favourite or second favourite song on the album, and I don’t even really know how they did it! It has all these effects on it, but it’s also really organic. Steve Cropper and Wesley really added a lot to that, and Roy just rode it like a horse.

AO: And even on the studio demo version that you can hear, it’s just my dad and a drummer and a bass player and an organ, and you can hear the fingernails on his hands that he grew out a bit so he can play that bit of flamenco on the acoustic guitar. His fingers just skate across the strings, and he’s doing everything with the guitar in the vocal booth, which is what he did on “Pretty Woman.” It’s so unorthodox, but it makes so much sense at the time. To hear him just strum away, it almost seems like the band around him doesn’t want to quit. That’s just a testament to what Roy was saying. The chassis of this whole machine is that song. The fact that they were able to create so freely and do that justice is wonderful.

ROJ: And every song on the album has that. They all have that hook and angle. That was kind of obvious to us. That song that Bono works on and wrote with The Edge called “She’s a Mystery to Me” eventually became the U2 song “One.” You can look at the chronology and timing of it all and you can almost see it as being parts one and two of the same song. This song was a stepping stone for Bono and the next eight months of his life to get to “One,” and that’s a pivotal “100 Best Songs of All Time” list maker. Even Roy’s presence can be felt there.

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